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Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#2

30 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks

2) LIFE ITSELF (2014)

If it wasn’t for the Roger Ebert, the late Pulitzer Prize winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 to his death in 2013, I wouldn’t be writing about movies today. The way he always expressed his opinion on a movie really spoke to me–it was never really about what he thought of the movie, but rather, it was about what he had to say about it. He inspired me to find my own voice–I always knew I loved movies, but Ebert taught me how to express my feelings about them.

I was a big fan of Ebert’s. Every week, I would keep up with his latest reviews online. I became obsessed with vintage episodes of his TV show (“Siskel & Ebert”) with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel. I was one of the people that continuously tuned into the short-lived 2011 revival, “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (with central critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnivetsky). When I read the news of his death, I was devastated–I never met my hero and I would never get to.

Over a year later, “Life Itself,” a documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) that was more or less based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, would be released in cinemas. I already knew I would love it, but even I didn’t think I would love it this much.

The documentary is a mixture of interviews (with mostly friends/ colleagues), old video clips of “Siskel & Ebert” reviews and Ebert interviews (among others), and new footage shot by James, which consist of Ebert in the hospital and in rehab being treated for a hip fracture, before being called in again for treatment of thyroid cancer that he’s been battling for years…which would then lead to his tragic death.

The new stuff is the most intriguing, as we get a powerful look at Ebert’s last days. But the rest makes it all the more meaningful. It paints a clear portrait of not just the professional film critic that he was but the person that he was as well. And it’s not afraid to be honest about the portrayal–his former colleagues have some unflattering stories about him from way back when, for example. (And we also get some hilarious outtakes of Ebert and Siskel arguing and insulting each other, giving us a clear sense of their love/hate relationship.) We see Roger Ebert here, flaws and all.

My personal favorite interviews are amongst the filmmakers that owe a great deal of debt to Ebert for being among the first to recognize their talents–Errol Morris (“Gates of Heaven,” one of Ebert’s favorite movies), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”), Ava De Vernay (whose debut film was the family drama “I Will Follow”), and Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”–also, his film “99 Homes” was dedicated to Ebert). I also liked the voice actor chosen to narrate passages from the book for the movie–Stephen Stanton, who voiced Ebert on the animated comedy sketch show “Robot Chicken.”

When his widow Chaz Ebert gives a heartfelt interview in regards to her husband’s death, it’s tear-worthy–no joke; I got a little teary-eyed at the end of this film.

“Life Itself” is my favorite documentary of the decade because it feels like the most human documentary of the decade. It’s truly moving, it paints a compelling portrait of a man, his passion, and his family/friends, and it’s so wonderful and powerful that it pained me that the Academy Awards neglected it for Best Documentary Feature consideration. Thankfully, it has 25 other wins and 33 nominations (according to IMDb) to its name because it deserved all the recognition it received. And it’s one of my favorite films of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#5

27 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood

5) WHIPLASH (2014)

When I first saw Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, there was one scene that I didn’t quite agree with. It’s a scene in which aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has dinner with his father (Paul Reiser) and his aunt, uncle, and two cousins. Andrew’s father has made an effort to encourage Andrew in his pursuit to a music career, and so now, Andrew is trying to express to his relatives how he feels about it. But that’s not important to them–not nearly as important as one cousin’s football skills and the other cousin’s “heading up Model UN, soon-to-be-Rhodes-Scholar or who knows what” (the aunt’s words). The aunt and uncle patronize the father’s “Teacher of the Year” award before asking condescendingly how Andrew’s drumming is going. Andrew tries to impress them, saying he’s one of a core dummer in the accomplished jazz orchestra and is one of the youngest in the band. Are they impressed? Nope. They just flat-out say in their own words that there’s no career in drumming (while Andrew’s father just sits by and doesn’t stand up for him). All they really want to talk about is their kids’ accomplishments, practically rubbing it in both Andrew’s and his father’s faces. Andrew snaps back, stating how being recognized as a great musician is his idea of success. Does this work? No way. In fact, HIS FATHER joins the bandwagon of the relatives and states bluntly, “Dying broke, drunk, and full of heroin at 34 would not be my idea of success.”

It gets more uncomfortable from there.

When I first saw this scene, it felt like the least effective part of the movie. I didn’t believe any family would behave like this. But seeing it again and studying it, not only does it give Andrew more purpose to push himself further in his craft, which then leads to conflict of goal, ambition, and identity by the film’s climax, and not only is it beautifully executed and written…but it is probably THE most effective scene in the movie, because it feels more real than I originally thought before.

So many people can relate to this scene one way or another, and more than half of those people have felt Andrew’s emotions here–anger and bitterness because the talent that gives you the most joy and purpose is underrated while others’ talents being gloated about are overrated. And not only is hard to express yourself–even if you could, you won’t be heard most of the time.

I know now that so many people have been there…and so have I.

“Whiplash” is a movie about an aspiring artist (Andrew) pushing himself to be great and the hard-as-nails teacher (Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons) that shoves him to be great. And it’s GREAT. “Whiplash” is a hell of a movie, one that gets better and better each time I see it. It asks tough questions with difficult answers, it’s brilliantly staged, acted, and edited, each development in Andrew’s pursuit to greatness is always interesting, I love the unconventional take on the instructor-student dynamic, and the ending is one of the most emotionally compelling finales I’ve ever seen.

I rated this film three-and-a-half stars instead of four because of that one scene. Now that I have no problems with the scene, I rate it four stars easily. It’s one of my new favorite movies.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#6

23 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties

6) BOYHOOD (2014)

Did you hear about Richard Linklater’s latest ambitious project? A musical that he’s supposedly going to be making for the next 20 years? Man, if I thought his 12-year filmmaking process for Boyhood was ambitious…

Linklater is one of my favorite filmmakers because of how he experiments with relationships and time in most of his films. Are we the same as who we were years ago? What’s different about us now? What can we learn from certain past incidents? Etc. That’s everything he covers with the overall effect of his “Before…” trilogy, which is overall a brilliant look at first love, second chances, and aftereffects of such. And with “Boyhood,” he outdoes himself beautifully, showing an ordinary American boy and his family coming of age over the course of 12 years.

There are many ways this project could have gone wrong. What if Ellar Coltrane, the young actor he cast in the pivotal role, grew into a bad actor over the course of this process? He cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, in the film as the boy’s sister decided she didn’t want to do this anymore? (Actually, she did try to get out of it before her father convinced her to stay.) They even prepared for who would take over if Linklater had suddenly died at any point before production was completed–Ethan Hawke, who worked with Linklater many times and plays the kids’ biological father in this, volunteered.

But it worked! It paid off. We have 12 years shown to us in chronological order as Mason (Coltrane) grows from age 6 to age 18, and we see his family–sister Samantha (Lorelei), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Hawke)–come of age as well. Nothing particularly special happens–it’s just a collection of small moments that so many of us can relate to.

Movies are typically ways of escaping reality, but if a film can truly capture reality, it’s something marvelous, especially if it brings you into the world of characters who feel like real people. And this film, chronicling 12 years in the life of a boy and his family, is like the ultimate slice-of-life picture.

On top of its truly remarkable behind-the-scenes story is a rich, detailed portrait about the lives of this kid growing into a man, his sister who grows up with him, and even the coming-of-age of their parents as they become more mature as well. We get brief stories within the over-two-and-a-half hour long running time, but things happen in this film that don’t always pay off because that’s the way life is, and Linklater knows that. Sometimes it is random; mostly it is pivotal; other times it’s essential; and so on.

And “Boyhood” is very successful at showing these moments in the lives of these people. People come in and out of their lives and we don’t hear back from a few of them; one day they’re interested in one thing but indifferent about it later; and so on.

“Boyhood” is a simple, universal story, told through Mason’s eyes, that is so easy to relate to. I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid, and I definitely felt like I knew those around him. That’s why it moved me so much. As time goes on, as the film continues in its nearly-three-hour running time, it’s very, very important that the growth and coming-of-age of this kid and his family are shown. Not only did I see them grow; I wanted to know what was going to happen to them for another 12 years.

“Boyhood” is an ambitious project that absolutely paid off, and it’s one of the best films from a brilliant filmmaker.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Big Hero 6 (2014)

19 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I’m going to get to writing about “Frozen” soon enough, because it’s Disney’s biggest hit (to say the absolute least!!). I already talked about “Tangled,” a very enjoyable romp. Other terrific Disney animated films from the 2010s include “Zootopia,” “Moana,” and “Wreck-It Ralph”–but today, I want to talk about what I think is their most “pure fun” animated film from this decade: “Big Hero 6.”

Remember when the Oscars didn’t nominate “The Lego Movie” for Best Animated Feature? Well, I feel a little better about that since they gave Disney’s “Big Hero 6” the honor.

“Big Hero 6” is conventional, cliched, and kind of predictable…but damn it if it also isn’t a ton of fun!

It’s an origin story for a team of superheroes, as a lovable collection of techno-savvy geeks band together and decide to suit up as a super-team to go up against a techno-savvy baddie. To their aid is a robotic companion, now programmed to kick some serious butt. Along the way, there’s tragedy, comedy, and of course, a life lesson that our main hero has to learn as well as the main villain.

Would it surprise you that this is based on a Marvel comic? Didn’t really surprise me, either.

Oh, and it also takes place in a future city known as San Fransokyo, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo–there’s not any explanation for this joining, but it makes for a pretty visual sight when we go to some different spots of this world here and there.

It begins as Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is convinced by his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to join his science college to better his creative mind. Hiro comes up with a unique robotic invention and unveils it at a science fair, but it seems someone is out to get it for himself and starts a fire in the building that claims the life of Tadashi. (It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some sort of tragic death, right?) Hiro is left with Tadashi’s own robotic invention–a portly Pillsbury Doughboy lookalike designed as a health care robot, named Baymax (Scott Adsit). At first, Hiro doesn’t want to admit he needs help in any way, even though he’s clearly suffering from loss of his brother. But when it becomes clear to him why his brother died (that it was no accident), he decides to get to the bottom of it. He rallies Tadashi’s genius classmates–cowardly laser specialist Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), quirky chemist Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), bitter engineer Go Go (Jamie Chung), and comic-book loving slacker Fred (T.J. Miller)–to help him out, and he also reprograms Baymax to become a lean (er…OK, not lean), mean (actually, he maintains his calm manner) fighting machine (thanks to karate styles in movies) to back him up.

Baymax is adorable. He speaks in a soothing voice, has many resources (including hugs) to help those in need of medical attention, and is the perfect toy for Disney to sell to children.

They go through all the motions of the origin story. They encounter a masked supervillain that they think is someone in particular but really turns out to be someone else for another reason. And of course, the villain’s motivation mirrors the hero’s selfish desire, which leads to a moral that both need to learn before the credits roll. Yes, admittedly, “Big Hero 6” doesn’t have much that’s “new,” per se, but when it works, it’s not only one of the most entertaining animated movies of the decade–it’s also one of the most touching. By the end, I wanted to tell Hiro that everything’s going to be OK and we all suffer and get through loss at some point of our lives.

Hiro is the most well-developed of the kids, which mostly comprise of generic types–the stoner, the goth, the wuss, the loony. But I like them all for the same reasons I like the kids in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” who were also generic types. They’re more than likable enough to follow and they add to the fun. They each get their time to shine.

The action is fun and wonderfully animated (like I would expect anything less from Disney animation). The themes of loss and redemption are well-done. And when it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter what we have or have not seen before in other movies before–what matters is how well it’s all handled. “Big Hero 6” is a ton of fun.

Also, stick around after the end credits (this is a Marvel movie, after all). It’s a pretty golden moment that follows.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Wind Rises (2014)

12 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong, this was said to be. Well, a few more years will change anyone’s mind, as he seemingly has another film in the works. But it wasn’t the first time he announced retirement anyway. Who am I to complain? If he wants to keep making films, let him.

“The Wind Rises” is one of Miyazaki’s best. It shows his strengths as a visionary animation director. It’s visually stunning, has a beautifully told story, and is just an overall fantastic film. It’s also the first time Miyazaki tackled a “true story,” so that’s just as impressive. It’s a story loosely based on aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in WWII.

Thankfully, neither the character nor the film have a political agenda to get across. We know what damage and tragedies came from this creation, with many lives lost at the hands of the fighter pilots. But the character of Jiro didn’t know that would happen–he just felt happy to create something unique and special…it just turned out that “something” was a weapon.

The film doesn’t focus on the controversies that spawned from what this creation led to, but it doesn’t ignore them either. It instead focuses on the wonder and majesty of bring something new and innovative to life. That is what the film is about–it’s a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion.

And the way the film explores the creative process is imaginative. We see Jiro’s dreams and fantasies (in which he converses with his hero, a late Italian aviator voiced by Stanley Tucci), and we also see little things that inspire him, even something as small as a curvy fish bone that inspires his ultimate design.

But the film is also very downplayed. Characters talk about what should be done and what needs to be in order to make it work, in realistically effective fashion. The visually amazing sequences that Miyazaki does best are saved for dream/fantasy sequences, which was a wise decision for a film like this.

Oh, and here’s an interesting tidbit: human voices are largely used as sound effects, such as engine roars. I don’t know exactly why, but I think that’s ingenious.

So maybe Miyazaki hasn’t called it quits yet. Whatever his next film turns out to be, I’ll be interested in seeing it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

9 Nov

By Tanner Smith

In my Looking Back post on “How to Train Your Dragon”, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels. I didn’t even see the first movie again for nine years–but after I did, I knew I had to check out the next two chapters.

What makes a good sequel work? When it continues the story they started and ended with before. “How to Train Your Dragon” (spoilers, I guess) ended with a Viking village learning to unite with once-feared dragons after the odd man out–the scrawny, awkward Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel)–taught them the hard way that there are benefits to training them. Now, with “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” we have a promising setup: years later, the village is living in perfect harmony with dragons. Immediately, you know not everyone, especially those outside the village, is going to be fine with that, so there are possibilities with the concept.

And thankfully, there are many terrific ideas at work with this sequel. A madman wants to raise a dragon army. There are other Dragon Riders. Hiccup’s long-lost mother is involved here. And more.

How does the movie turn out? Well, not only did I like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” every bit as much as “How to Train Your Dragon,” but I think it’s even better.

Just when I thought “Kung Fu Panda” was DreamWorks’ most enjoyable franchise.

Director Dean DeBlois took inspiration from “The Empire Strikes Back,” one of the greatest sequels in film history. And it makes sense. That film also continued the original story with new ideas and twists to add further layers. That includes expanding the scope. What “The Empire Strikes Back” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” have in common is they both take the audience to different places and introduce us to new ideas that make us think about what was before and what could be in the future.

The characters from the first film are welcomed back, including the dragons which all have different expressions and identities. Hiccup is still a likable lead, and he’s given more room to grow in this environment he’s still trying to find his place within. Also, it’s amazing I haven’t gotten annoyed by Jay Baruchel’s gratingly nasal voice by now–guess it just adds to his character. I also like Astrid (America Ferrara), Hiccup’s fellow dragon-rider and girlfriend, better in this sequel–she has more to do and is stronger and more resourceful, but she doesn’t have to try so hard to prove it, which is a huge relief. Hiccup’s father Stoik (Gerard Butler) is still a stubborn ass but for different reasons this time–one of the strengths of both “Dragon” movies is that this brutish character isn’t a one-note angry Viking. Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), Stoik’s close friend, is still effective comic-relief (though not much else). Oh, and we also have Hiccup and Astrid’s obnoxious friends from the first movie (voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig)…you know what? At least two of these four actually got some laughs out of me this time around! I especially like Ruffnut (Wiig) and her strange infatuation with one of the new antagonists: a Viking named Eret, “son of Eret” (Kit Harrington). (The moment she allows herself to be captured in slow-motion by Eret’s net and she drones, “Take me,” while holding her arms out–that had me laughing on the floor!)

The new characters include the aforementioned Eret, the dragon trapper that sets the plot in motion, as Hiccup and the dragon Toothless discover a plot to build a dragon army for the mysterious Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless warlord who wants destruction all around. But more importantly, we have Valka (Cate Blanchett), a dragon rescuer who has created a safe haven for dragons and lives solely amongst them. OH, and she’s also Hiccup’s mother!

So now, we have more room for backstory and character development to gain, more secrets to learn about with the dragons, and more of this visually impressive world we get to discover. This is just what was needed for a “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel and I absolutely loved it.

And the animation is of course spectacular. The flying scenes were a definite highlight in the first movie. They’re just as gorgeous if not even better in the second movie. I really wish I had seen this film on a big screen (and in 3-D) just to absorb the glory of Hiccup and Toothless flying in the wide-open sky. (This time, Hiccup has his own manmade wings to soar alongside Toothless rather than ride on top of Toothless.)

There are even some emotionally beautiful moments too, as you would expect with the reunion between Hiccup and Stoik and Valka. But something else happens late in the film (and I won’t give it away) that I didn’t think the film would tackle…and it did. Damn.

Even though I wasn’t sure about the idea of including a villain for the sequel when the first movie didn’t need one, and admittedly Drago’s motivation for conquering dragons is a little too obvious, I bought it because I thought this one was inevitable.

I made a mistake ignoring the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels, and I will see the third movie, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” real soon. Will it be just as good as the other two, will it be even better, or will just be a serviceable sequel? I don’t know…but I’m going to find out!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

How do you follow something as big and innovative as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in the MCU?

With “weird.” But, like, the good, awesome kind of “weird.” Why not hire Troma aficionado James Gunn to adapt the Marvel comic book about space aliens and a talking raccoon kicking ass across the galaxy?

Thus came “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the blockbuster hit no one expected. Even fans of the comics didn’t see this coming.

It is interesting to go to intergalactic fugitives battling through space after we’ve been used to superheroes and all-powerful gods. How are we supposed to take a talking raccoon and a walking tree (who only says three words: “I am Groot”) seriously? Well…we kind of do and kind of don’t at the same time. It’s complicated.

How complicated? Here’s how the movie opens–we get an emotionally heavy scene in which a little boy sees his mother die in a hospital bed right in front of him, before he’s abducted by aliens as he runs off in a sad fit. That’s the kind of WTF-ness we’re in for, so we just have to see what we get.

Cue the Marvel logo, followed by the caption “27 YEARS LATER” on a desert planet as a masked rogue kicks some small alien creatures while rocking out to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on his walkman and headphones, as the opening credits roll.

OK, movie. I’m hooked. Keep it coming.

Point is, “Guardians of the Galaxy” has a sense of humor and we’re not meant to take it that seriously. But at the same time, it embraces its weirdness, so we can identify as well.

So, we have our hero…hero…er…….considering the idiotic things Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) does in subsequent MCU entries, I don’t like to call him “our hero” anymore. Well, anyway, Peter was abducted by alien bounty/treasure hunters and has lived amongst them since then. But now he’s caught and imprisoned by the Nova Corps, along with other outlaws: a humanoid plant named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a lab-experiment swearing raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos who works as an assassin.

Oh, and this marks the first appearance of Thanos (not including his end-credits cameo in “The Avengers”), the all-powerful super-villain. Everyone saw this as a big deal; I didn’t. He doesn’t do much in this one, so we’re subjected one of his boring subjects, Ronan the Accuser (I had to look up his name; that’s how forgettable he is). And whenever he reappeared at a distance in future MCU movies, I wouldn’t give a damn who this guy was…until about four years later, of course, when he finally comes out to play in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

This was also the second appearance of the Infinity Stones (which were set up in “Thor: The Dark World”). Again, we had to wait to see what those were all about. (Or at least I had to–I don’t read comics.)

Anyway, our band of outlaws team up with Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a heavyset warrior who never lies or understands sarcasm, as they escape the prison and race to outrun Ronan before they decide to stand together and fight him.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gave us something interesting and new while still staying true to the Marvel traditions, whereas “Guardians of the Galaxy” is…different. And we embraced it because of that. I did too. I thought it was fun and funny…I even called it the “Ghostbusters” of our generation. Do I still think that?

Well…maybe it’s not as great as I remember it being. Maybe I just appreciated it highly for being so different. But it is still a fun watch.

I may be in a minority opinion here, but the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t the most interesting heroes to me. I mean, their backstories are interesting, but they themselves…let me put it this way: it feels like they think they’re funnier than they really are. Peter’s a dork who’s too high on himself (and I’ll get to his “ego,” if you will, in future posts), which is funny sometimes when he practically whines to be taken seriously with his title of “Starlord”; Rocket laughs way too much at his own jokes; and soon, even when Drax lightens up, he becomes a little grating too. I like them better when they’re sincere goofballs rather than standup comedians who need to know when to move along with the next bit.

But something else that makes me hold back a little bit when looking back on this movie is that the pacing is a little confused. Some of the action goes on a little long, and the emotional moments (such as Groot lighting up a room) are a little short. I get that it’s a comedy first and foremost, but sometimes, especially for an MCU entry, it feels a little messy.

But I still enjoy “Guardians of the Galaxy” for individual scenes that make me laugh out loud, individual moments that get me excited, and simply the overall creative and giddy spirit of the thing. (And of course, the rousing vintage soundtrack helps a lot too.) I don’t love it as much as most MCU fans do, but I still had a good time revisiting it.