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‘Avengers: Endgame’ Is Marvel at Its Best — and Worst

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It’s finally here — the conclusion to Marvel’s Avengers series (or at least its first incarnation). With 22 films spread out over 11 years (and an increase from one film a year to three), Marvel Studios has managed to create an epic slate of films interconnected in ways that seemed like fan service at best and self-promotion at worst. But more than just the culmination of the development of the Marvel brand, Avengers: Endgame is (seemingly) the end of the road for the two directors who have helmed some of the most defining films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Anthony and Joe Russo. Endgame is their chance to show off what they’ve learned, as well as to send off a few beloved characters, and for the film’s first two hours they craft something more compelling than any previous Marvel film. Alas, Endgame isn’t a tight two-hour powerhouse, but rather a bloated three-hour pseudo-epic trafficking in the worst excesses of previous superhero films.

But back to those great two hours. The film opens shortly before the end of Infinity War, but rather than a simple recap, we spend time back on Earth with one of the characters who got short shrift in that earlier film. At the moment when half the universe’s population simply turned to dust and blew away, we get a sense of real loss. Aside from the very moving death of Spider-Man with a helpless Tony Stark by his side, Infinity War’s supposedly-shocking ending was robbed of much of its intended power by Marvel Studios’ constant need to return to the same well. These characters are its bread and butter, and it won’t let half of them cease to exist just because that might make for a compelling film. It’s no spoiler to say that those heroes all return in Endgame (though one might be amazed at what some people consider spoilers), but the same can’t be said of the rest of the universe’s denizens, and considering their plight is a welcome change for a franchise that once destroyed much of Manhattan without considering how many people would have died in such a tragedy.

Avengers: Endgame

Wisely, the Russos focus on the surviving Avengers and their overwhelming grief. We see Captain Marvel attending a grief support group, and later we see Tony Stark battling with his grief over the teenage boy he let down, as well as his guilt at fostering a new family even as so many other families were destroyed. We haven’t been allowed to see these emotions in previous Marvel films, at least not to this degree, and it’s exhilarating despite the downbeat tone. Avengers fans whose favorite parts of the movies are the battles at the end will be bored to tears, but anyone interested in heroes with actual thoughts and feelings will find something new and moving here.

Avengers: Endgame boasts two of the best hours Marvel has ever made…

Despite the first hour’s focus on loss, it’s surprisingly upbeat, thanks to a focus on Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was left stranded in the quantum realm when Thanos snapped his fingers. It’s through his eyes that we first get a sense of the total devastation wrought on the planet following the deaths of half its population. Abandoned buildings and smashed up cars abound, and everything seems to have come to a stand-still. When Lang asks a passing boy what happened, he just shrugs, suggesting the survivors were overcome by apathy once the greed abated.

Hour two shows Endgame at its most playful and joyous, as the remaining heroes plot what they think will be a stealth plan to save their fallen comrades, involving a complicated and relatively silly time travel plot that takes the characters back to scenes both well-remembered and barely thought of from the earlier Marvel films. Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk is particularly spirited, and Chris Evans, always a bit of stiff, seems to be having some fun for once. (He, or more accurately, his ass, is also the subject of the film’s funniest joke.)

Avengers: Endgame

But Endgame is three hours long, not two (just in case you hadn’t read all the histrionic social media posts from weak-bladdered viewers). Like nearly every single Marvel film before it, this one features a massive, utterly boring, and ineptly staged concluding battle. The problem is that there are only so many ways that Captain America can hit someone with his shield and only so many new gadgets Iron Man can shoot from his arms. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. And this one very much feels like we’ve seen it a thousand times before. Although it feels blessedly shorter than the Infinity War end-battle, it also feels like a weak redux of that film once Thanos’ army arrives. It doesn’t help that the Russos belong to the incomprehensible school of action filmmaking, where a bevy of quick cuts makes what’s going on unintelligible. Perhaps they can’t settle on any one character for more than a few seconds because they fear of boring the audience, but it would be more interesting to see the actual struggle of these battles, instead of just editing together their most impressive kills. What saves the weak final section of Endgame ends up not being the Russos’ filmmaking chops, but something far more mundane: contractual obligations. This is the last film for several Avengers stars, and Endgame finds moving and varied ways to send them off.

Avengers: Endgame

Though its greatest faults lie in the third hour, Endgame is peppered with painfully self-aware moments. The Russos went to great extremes to pat themselves on the back for featuring a gay character, but the person in question turns out to be an unnamed man in Captain America’s support group who only briefly mentions having a husband, before disappearing from the rest of the film (he’s also played by Joe Russo, who’s not gay). Rather than showing one of the heroes that audiences have connected to is gay, the Russos merely confirm that the Avengers don’t live in some alternate universe free of gay people, a laughably low bar to clear. The scene reinforces the studio’s habit of talking up any hint of representation while simultaneously tamping down those already negligible moments. The movie is also beset by some of the most ham-fisted product placement ever seen. There’s nothing wrong with Audis, but something’s amiss when all of the Avengers drive them. Every time they go for a drive, they manage to park their cars at that diagonal angle beloved by car ads because it shows off the exterior while still keeping the brand’s logo front and center.

But even with those embarrassing faults and the film’s action snoozefest conclusion, it’s worth remembering that 2/3 of Avengers: Endgame is among the best work Marvel has ever produced. It’s a film that deserves to be seen, and maybe it’s the best conclusion to this first chapter that anyone could have hoped for. But it’s a shame that Marvel hasn’t found a way to end its films without these anonymous concluding battles. Perhaps the 23rd times’ the charm.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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