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Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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The Ten Best Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

10. Iron Man (2008)

Rarely does a film leave such a lasting impact as 2008’s Iron Man. There have been important movies since, but not a single one has managed to redefine the landscape of cinema in the same way. With Iron Man came the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with the Marvel Cinematic Universe came a decade of non-stop superhero action. This was a movie that sparked a wildfire that has yet to be put out, as studios continue to try to recapture that same flame Tony Stark lit back in a cave with a box of scraps at the turn of the decade.

As a movie, Iron Man stands out especially thanks to the care it gives to pacing its narrative. Outside of flashbacks, Tony Stark spends the entire first act secluded from the rest of the world. Immediately, audiences can form an intimate connection with the character as he desperately tries to stay alive and build the iteration of the titular suit. By the time the plot proper begins, audiences fully understand who Tony is as a character, what he is capable of, and the arc he will be undergoing.

From a filmmaking perspective, Iron Man is easily one of the best in terms of direction and writing. The script is filled with natural dialogue only enhanced by the overall cast’s performances. The MCU has occasionally struggled with miscast supporting players, but there is not a single weak link in Iron Man. As far as shots go, Iron Man is home to perhaps the most iconic in the series: Tony’s arms stretched out as a host of Stark weapons go off behind him. It’s the perfect introduction to his character, one that captures the man he will grow out of while also hammering in the anti-weapons theme the film would go on to explore.

More than anything, Iron Man has simply aged well. It isn’t held back by the constraints of needing to fit into an overarching series, but it still respects its role in the franchise by properly serving as the origin point for everything to come. It’s a personal story about Tony Stark without forgetting pave the way for subsequent films. It all caps off with one of the greatest moments in superhero moviedom, where Tony drops the pretense of secret identities and outs himself as Iron Man before the credits roll. It’s the perfect cap to a great film, and a masterfully appropriate start to a decade’s worth of films dedicated to redefining the superhero genre. (Renan Fontes)

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

9. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

As The Marvel Cinematic Universe has evolved, the ambition of each new film has escalated, with bigger budgets, bloated run times, and storylines jutting into space. In many cases, film quality has followed in kind. Thor: Ragnarok eclipses the Thor offerings that precede it. Winter Soldier and The First Avenger retroactively seem like pleasant stepping stones on the road to Civil War. Likewise, Infinity War looms as the culmination of everything (until the next culmination of everything), threatening to relegate Marvel’s The Avengers to a nascent glimpse of potential or vestige of simpler times.

Not so fast: The Avengers remains the highest grossing MCU film, having held off behemoths like Black Panther and Iron Man 3. It was Infinity War before Infinity War — the original “I can’t believe they actually pulled this off” triumph. The film is a fascinating threshold between phases (certainly more so than its sequel, Age: Of Ultron), lamentably heralding a new era where everything matters so much, yet nothing really does. Avengers shocked us with its ambition and success; six years later, these movies feel predestined and inevitable, no matter their quality.

But The Avengers also stands upon its own merit. There’s a lot of sap there, to be sure: the idea of Agent Coulson’s death being a necessary catalyst for the team to unite feels quaint, given the deluge of films that have followed. The Avengers were always going to Avenge — we know this — but the film mined the novelty of their collaboration for moments of originality, and shades of each character were still unrevealed. They grate on one another, as they realistically would; Tony Stark has always been an Asshole, Captain America an insufferable boy scout, and Thor is aloof instead of the snarky, one-eyed Jack he has become.

In large part, The Avengers have become a mishmash of similar heroes, delineated along ideological lines. They each employ Tony Stark’s caustic wit and Captain America’s brooding gravity in equal measure, but The Avengers withstood that tendency until its climactic crowning shot, which circles them as they finally unite. The moment represents both end and beginning — the end of the MCU’s most ambitious gambit, in which it banked on audience interest in unsung heroes like Thor and Iron Man, and the beginning of Marvel’s reign as cinematic overlord, a machine so unstoppable that framing real narrative stakes has become harder with each new film. There have been good — and even great — movies since, but few manage to feel a fraction as epic as The Avengers. (Michael Haigis)

Ranking the Marvel Movies

8. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Whether you love the Marvel Cinematic Universe or you hate it, nobody can argue that the movies have a tendency to stick to a formula for the most part, for better or worse. One of the reasons that Guardians of the Galaxy feels so fresh is that it’s about heroes that most of us have never heard of, and it’s set in the dark recesses of outer space, a million miles away from anyone (well, mostly anyone) that has been featured in the MCU before.

The rag-tag bunch of quasi-heroes that make up the Guardians and have banded together to (reluctantly) save the world(s) are a likeable crew, and most importantly, they’re largely different to the majority of Marvel heroes we’ve seen before. While Star-Lord isn’t too far removed from Tony Stark as a character, the wise-cracking raccoon, Rocket, and the adorable tree-man, Groot, became the original MCU breakout stars long before Okoye would steal the show in Black Panther.

Guardians might have a disposable villain, even by the MCU’s crummy standards, but the plot and the threat and the end goal is kinda irrelevant. It’s the journey that matters, as well as the quick-witted banter between the characters. That’s the heart, and it’s where Guardians truly excels. It’s by far the funniest Marvel movie (at least until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), and one that even people who traditionally don’t like superhero movies can get behind. Throw in a wonderful ‘70s soundtrack, and the MCU just doesn’t get much better than Guardians of the Galaxy. (John Cal McCormick)

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

7. Black Panther (2018)

The newest addition to the MCU, Black Panther shows that Marvel is only getting better. In a collection of great superhero movies, Black Panther stands out by taking the focus off the superhero aspect. Writer/Director Ryan Coogler brings his expertise in political, emotionally charged films, and creates a marvel movie that feels immensely dramatic and brings up a lot of important questions about the real world — particularly regarding the African Diaspora and their relationship to the continent they can trace their ancestry to. The people of Wakanda are as well-crafted as the Afrofuturist aesthetic of the country in which they live. Just like T’Challa stole the show in Captain America: Civil War, his sister Shuri, spy Nakia, and General Okoye steal the show here. The number of laughs we get from Shuri and the thrills we get from Okoye make them instantly lovable, and they always leave you wanting more. Nakia also presents our hero with the rational side to the antagonist’s villainous plot.

And of course, Black Panther has one of, if not the greatest villain the MCU has to offer. From the very first scene he’s introduced, Eric Killmonger makes you pay attention. Michael B Jordan puts on a novel performance as the furiously determined army veteran. Killmonger’s unbridled anger and extremism have an undeniable weight to it, and he feels as threatening as any supervillain, despite being (by all means) a normal person. You fear his disposition and denounce his goals, but you can’t help but feel bad for him. You feel that below the anger and hatred, his criticisms of Wakanda and the wider world are undeniably right. And despite the sub-par CGI plaguing the movie’s climax, Killmonger and T’Challa’s final confrontation is heart-breaking, due in part to how much their conflict means to both characters. He remains the only MCU villain to bring tears to my eyes.

Considering all its strengths, it’s no surprise that Black Panther is currently one of the highest grossing movies of all time. Black Panther has become the rising star of the MCU, and if things keep going well for the Wakandans, we’ll be seeing much more of them in the future. (Ade Adeoye)

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

6. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

It’s safe to say that all Marvel fans had the same joyful reaction when they realised that Spider-Man would be joining the MCU. While the two previous Spider-Man movie franchises were good in their own rights, Spider-Man: Homecoming blows them out of the water. The web-slinger’s newest film lacks many of the iconic marks of the other films — there’s no Uncle Ben, there’s no green goblin, and there’s barely a Mary Jane — but the direction in which Homecoming goes heavily justifies these changes. With the fat trimmed, a fresh cast, and a new story, Homecoming becomes streamlined and easily the most enjoyable Spider-Man film yet. It takes the ‘friendly neighbourhood’ aspect of the character and makes it the focus. Tom Holland plays the most authentic Peter Parker yet, both sufficiently quippy and nerdy, and constantly hilarious. His concerns aren’t with stopping rampaging millionaires or super-powered villains, but with helping people all over New York with the small things. And when he’s raring to move on to bigger jobs, the ever-entertaining Iron Man is there to act as his guardian and keep him grounded.

The movie’s rendition of The Vulture is a villain as blue collar as Spider-Man. He’s a man whose only real motivation is providing for his family, albeit via dangerous and illegal means. How down to earth both characters are makes for a movie with much smaller stakes than its MCU companions, but it undoubtedly works. Fifteen-year-old Peter Parker isn’t a full hero like the Avengers are; as Tony Stark points out several times, he’s just not ready for that life. Writer/Director Jon Watts could’ve had Peter pitted up against a grandiose villain with a world-threatening plan, but realistically, in the same New York where the Avengers tower is located, Peter wouldn’t be the one dealing with it. It only made sense that MCU Peter begins by dealing with (essentially) a small-scale arms dealer. Thankfully, the film effectively portrays Parker’s youth and naivety, while still making him the Spider-Man we know and love. (Ade Adeoye)

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

5. Iron Man 3 (2013)

The first post-Avengers film felt like the closest thing to a post-9/11 movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the events of New York, Iron Man 3 sees Tony Stark suffering from anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress. He can’t stop working himself to exhaustion, and throws himself in front of terrorist attacks believing himself to be untouchable. Shane Black’s entry in the Iron Man franchise is the one that pushes Tony Stark to face the demons he has created, and is the most human portrayal of the billionaire seen in any of the films.

A lot of the charm comes from how Downey Jr. plays off characters — something which Black has made a career doing. From the first act’s focus on Stark’s strained relationship with Pepper Potts, to the second act’s revitalization of who Tony Stark is through conversations with a young kid reminiscent of himself, to the conclusion with Stark and James Rhodes’ friendly banter, Stark realizes that he has a duty to the world, but his own personal life matters just as much. Iron Man 3 is what happens when you take the man out of the suit — he finds out what really matters, and whether it’s him or Iron Man that is necessary to the world.

Much of Iron Man 3 lets the comic book side of things take a back seat until the final showdown, instead making a direct parallel between terrorist attacks and the Extremis program. The Mandarin works great as a face for evil, despite the reveals that may have angered comic book fans. There are a lot of factors that go into why evil happens, making Aldrich Killian a great example of evil born from past mistakes that capitalizes on growing global tensions. Sometimes we don’t realize the error of our ways until it’s too late; Iron Man 3 is that profoundly delayed realization in Stark’s life. (Christopher Cross)

Ranking the Marvel Movies

4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok has no shortage of action-packed or hilarious scenes that make it one of the best films of 2017. However, as awesome as they all undoubtedly are, there’s one scene in particular that stands out above the rest. It’s not a scene that exemplifies Taika Waititi’s quirky sense of humour or his skill with fight sequences, but rather a scene that indicates his ability to pinpoint the emotional core of a narrative no matter how absurd or bombastic it might otherwise be. This scene is, of course, the death of Odin.

On a verdant cliff overlooking the ocean as it stretches to the horizon and merges with a sun-pierced sky, Thor and Loki meet with their father, Odin, one last time before he dies. It’s a tender scene that does away with the Shakespearean levels of pomposity that made the Asgardians work so well in the previous two films and replaces that with a much more muted and relatable sense of loss that instantly humanizes the demi-gods. For all their prodigious strength and inhuman abilities, the two sons of Asgard are as weak and vulnerable as even the lowliest human to the eventual ravages of time. As the last of Odin’s strength fails him, he transforms into a haze of starlight as his divine essence ascends to join his beloved wife, Frigga, in the afterlife.

Not only is it a powerful moment in its own right, and one of the most affecting so far in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also a pivotal moment in the story. Immediately following Odin’s death, the audience is finally introduced to Hela, the film’s principle antagonist, and the story proper begins. The rest of Ragnarok may essentially be the greatest prog-metal music video ever made, but it’s that one brief moment of clarity and calm that defines the real spirit of the entire film. (Chris Underwood)

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

3. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

If the movies in the MCU often feel like they’re made via a template, Civil War is one of the few entries that stands apart from the rest. Unlike most of the movies featured on this list, Captain America: Civil War tells not of global or galaxial annihilation, but instead a more personal tale of friends and allies that can’t see eye to eye on the big issues, and the fallout from the difference in their philosophies.

Sure, that still involves an awful lot of CGI people kicking each other in the face, but it’s at least nice to see some repercussions this time around for all the destruction and devastation that has occurred in the previous movies. For every world-ending event that the Avengers stopped either together or alone, countless people were hurt or killed, and that’s why Zemo (a more well-rounded villain than usual for the MCU) makes it his personal mission to destroy them not with magic powers or hi-tech gadgetry, but by driving a wedge between them with some uncomfortable home truths.

From an action standpoint, it also features one the MCU’s greatest battles: a ludicrous battle royale set in an airport featuring a team of superheroes led by Tony Stark going up against Captain America’s squad of super-powered all-stars. It’s our first taste of what Infinity War would be like, stuffing each scene with weird mash-ups of heroes that we’ve never seen before and making sure that everyone involved gets something cool to do before the dust has settled. Spider-Man and Ant-Man steal the show, but once it’s all over, the movie settles back down in order to deal with the most personal and emotional conflict in the series so far, changing the direction of the MCU forever. It’s a home run. (John Cal McCormick)

Captain America First Avenger Movie

2. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Before the Marvel template was in full effect, before quips became the punctuation of choice for superhero dialogue, before both preventing and causing rampant destruction became a prerequisite for exciting action, director Joe Johnston crafted an old-fashioned adventure that recalled a bygone era when things just made more sense. Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect introduction to a character out of time; it tells its story with filmmaking techniques of yore (or at least pre-Avengers), unafraid to take time to develop, and confident enough to substitute actual sincerity in place of snark.

Though a typical origin story in many respects, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the few Marvel films that doesn’t seem ashamed by this, disinterested in moving on to bigger and louder things. Audiences will spend a good deal of time with Steve Rogers the runt, witness to his many failings yet also a party to the indomitable spirit that catches the wise eye of a certain ex-Nazi doctor with an experimental drug that could give Steve the physical ability to match his mental nobility. The early scenes of Skinny Steve are vital to understanding the mind of a man who until now has been frustrated by his helplessness when it comes to helping, and when the young man is artificially juiced into the muscular pinup idol audiences currently cheer, one can’t help believe that this guy will actually follow through on turning the world’s wrongs into honorable rights.

That character development also lends its weight to the eventual action. The pursuit of a Hydra agent through 1940s New York is both tense and entertaining as the Cap discovers his new power, yet also tinged with sadness and outrage over the death that instigated it — because of a relationship allowed to breathe. After a montage depicting the powerful-yet-powerless hero paraded around like a dancing bear for the USO, a solo mission to free some POWs from a German base feels more like Captain America is finally breaking out of his own prison and into the man he was always meant to be. The last act does sag a bit, but the assault on Red Skull’s base and subsequent hijacking of his death plane beats any city-destroying rampage that came after it simply by focusing on story more than spectacle — and that time-travel ending is a knockout. Honest, dedicated, hard-working, genuine; the world needs heroes like Steve Rogers, and Marvel needs more entries in its ever-expanding universe like Captain America: The First Avenger. (Patrick Murphy)

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

1. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)

Hail Hydra! By far one of the biggest moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Captain America: Winter Soldier’s dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D., the main government body in the Marvel comics. It rippled through immediately to the TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as the agency was revealed to have been run by Hydra. Not only that, but Captain America himself has his entire world collapse around him only to leave him left to figure out where he stands in the current political landscape.

The rise of Hydra does many things to Steve Rogers as a character. It pushes him from being on the inside to the outside, it means the war against Hydra he thought he helped win wasn’t the absolute victory he believed, and it forces Rogers to question anything and everything instead of blindly following the leader. The “America is #1” ideal from Captain America: The First Avenger is taken away from the equation, while also cementing the doubt Rogers has about S.H.I.E.L.D. when he discovers in The Avengers that weapons of mass destruction are being built covertly by the organization he believed in completely. Rogers grows as a character more than any other in the MCU, and pitting him against Bucky Barnes (his best friend) while dissolving S.H.I.E.L.D. and killing off the love of his life, Peggy Carter, is a sure-fire way to have a man question his entire being.

While the character study of Steve Rogers is incredibly detailed, it’s the ’70s conspiracy thriller that is so embroiled in the DNA of Winter Soldier that elevates the movie beyond its comic book nature. Sure, we still get great fights (and for the first time, I felt like every action scene was perfectly executed) and quippy one-liners, but it’s the tension that keeps things interesting. Robert Redford is delightfully corporate as the bad guy of the film, and Anthony Mackie establishes himself as a great addition to the Marvel roster as Falcon. It’s a cast worth admiring, but it’s that political angle that leaves perfect execution in directing feeling vital to whether the movie lands or not — which it does, with an astoundingly somber, tense tone. (Christopher Cross)

PART ONE

Humans by birth. Gamers by choice.Goomba Stomp is a Canadian web publication that has been independently owned and operated since its inception in 2016.

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TIFF 2019: Benson and Moorhead Bend Time in the Psychedelic ‘Synchronic’

Trippy visuals and historical context ground this ambitious science fiction film.

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Synchronic

Bringing together trippy science fiction and the grit of New Orleans, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue their streak of grounded genre-fare with Synchronic. With another exploration into concepts of time and reality, Synchronic plays out like a cross between Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead and Shane Carruth’s Primer. Though not as nuanced in its characters as previous entires in their filmography, Benson and Moorhead provide another delight for genre fans, and a compelling idea that never gets too far out of their grasp, despite its ambitiousness.

Focused on two paramedics, Synchronic finds Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) driving through New Orleans and stumbling upon several drug overdoses in the city. The only connection between the overdoses is that all of the victims took a new designer drug called Synchronic. As the incidents start piling up, the two become entangled in the mystery of the drug’s effects after Dennis’ teenage daughter (Ally Ioannides) takes it and goes missing. While Dennis tries to find his daughter, Steve takes it upon himself to learn what exactly Synchronic does to the user, which ultimately leads to the film’s surreal and genre-bending narrative.

Tensions between the two escalate as Dennis contends with his failing marriage, which is only made worse when their daughter disappears, while Steve hides a terminal illness that leads him to experiment with Synchronic. As an isolated alcoholic who is dying, Mackie is probably the best he’s ever been in a role that doesn’t really offer him much in terms of character development but still puts him in situations where his charisma brings magnitudes. Hefty amounts of emotional baggage are dropped on him, and he does a significant job elevating the material. Meanwhile, Dornan continues to be bland, and his chemistry with Mackie feels forced every time they banter. In fact, almost all of the emotion in Synchronic comes up short because of this lack of chemistry and Dornan’s poor acting.

Despite that, Synchronic is enjoyable because of where its science fiction concept is willing to reach. The visuals are otherworldly as different time periods blend into each other, and Benson and Moorhead continue to show what can be done on a modest budget. While the film’s trippy concept is explored thoroughly enough, there are facets that desire extrapolation, such as the personal ramifications of taking the drug — which isn’t explored, despite drugs with hallucinatory and psychedelic effects tending to take the user into account. Instead the drug here has the same effect on everyone, with any deviations dictated by external factors. However, the film casually explores Steve’s character within the guise of this, making for a riveting — but not all that deep — look at the past to see how much better things are now.

Synchronic doesn’t quite live up to the neat package that The Endless was, but Benson and Moorhead pare down the scope of the film in order to keep it neater and more controllable. Otherwise, not only would it have been a messy venture, but the dull characters would deny any thrills. Thankfully, Mackie does wonders in a very subdued emotional performance that complements the visually arresting imagery. Synchronic is a solid genre flick that will keep Benson and Moorhead on the rise in the genre community, and will satisfy fans of a psychedelic premise rooted in the real world.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer

The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.

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Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by an perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.

Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.

Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonicscape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.

Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involving R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.

That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.

There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and they way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective, and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ Is a Compelling Study on Loneliness

Kiyoshi Kurosawa steers clear of thriller and horror territory with this lovely film about a Japanese woman adrift in a foreign land.

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To the Ends of the Earth

It’s de rigeur at this point to mention in a review whenever the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is working in a genre other than horror, but it’s a strange trend. Kurosawa certainly made a name for himself with his chilling and elegant horror films, most famously Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but he didn’t make any horror films between 2006’s Retribution and 2016’s Creepy, and he hasn’t made any since then. Perhaps hardcore horror fans are fickle enough to simply pass over the half of his output that isn’t explicitly scary, but it would be an utter shame to do so, especially when he’s still working at the top of his game. His newest, To the Ends of the Earth, finds him working in a quieter mode than usual, but it’s one of his most heartfelt and engaging movies.

The Japanese pop singer Atsuko Maeda stars in To the Ends of the Earth as Yoko, a news-magazine reporter who is visiting Uzbekistan to film an episode for a travel series. (Kurosawa was approached in 2016 about making a film to commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, though there’s nothing celebratory about this film.) She’s joined by a small camera crew, as well as their invaluable translator, Temur (Adiz Rajabov). Most of the things she has to film would only appeal to your grandparents, like when she visits a large, man-made lake in search of a mythical fish that almost certainly doesn’t exist. Other trips take her to a bustling bazaar and an amusement park where she has to ride a nausea-inducing attraction multiple times in order to get enough usable footage.

To the Ends of the Earth

Yoko displays a bubbly personality when on camera, but as soon as the light goes off, her face begins to droop. The beaming smile collapses and dips at the corners, and her eyes become dark and stormy. Though she’s an integral part of the production, the camera crew — especially the chilly director, Yoshioka (Shôta Sometani) — often dismiss her opinions or don’t even ask in the first place. They send her into the lake in waders, even though there’s a hole in them that renders the pants useless at keeping out water. They send her up again and again on the amusement ride, even though a single ride is all the cameraman is willing to take. The culturally conservative men in Uzbekistan don’t help either. Their guide in search of the mythical fish tells the men that they’re having no luck because the fish can smell women. Whether she’s surrounded by foreigners or even by men she knows well, Yoko is always alone on her trip, and the loneliness starts to eat away at her.

To the Ends of the Earth lives and dies by Maeda’s performance, and luckily it’s a mesmerizing one. There’s a simplicity to her acting that avoids many of the traditional signifiers of ‘quality’ acting — a short-hand of unrealistic tropes that even the best actors regularly use. I wouldn’t have known that she wasn’t really a reporter until the movie briefly turns into a musical toward the end, in a welcome break from reality. Maeda movingly conveys the disappointment of being undervalued by all the men around her, but she also shows off her ability to display overwhelming dread when she fears something terrible may have happened to a loved one back in Tokyo. Kurosawa uses a more static camera here than usual, but it helps to not distract from Maeda’s performance. Those looking for more plot and drama like some of Kurosawa’s older thrillers may be disappointed by To the Ends of the Earth, but it stands among his best and most moving works.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘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.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: Steven Soderbergh Explores International Corruption in ‘The Laundromat’

Steven Soderbergh’s newest film is an exploration (and explanation) of the 2015 Panama Papers leak that revealed unimaginable global corruption.

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The Laundromat

It seems like it was only yesterday that Steven Soderbergh announced he be taking a directing sabbatical to focus on painting. Since then, he’s directed three full seasons of television and three feature-length films, in addition to dalliances with the theatre. But his break from film seems to have done the famously restless filmmaker a world of good, even if it didn’t last long. His last batch of films have seen him return to also serving in the cinematographer and editor positions, and his experiments shooting with an iPhone have proven that he’s still light on his feet. Soderbergh’s newest feature, The Laundromat, doesn’t feature any iPhone acrobatics, but it is one of his most playful films ever.

Written by Soderbergh’s longtime collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, The Laundromat attempts to both explain the complicated workings of the 2015 Panama Papers leak as well as put a human face to the unethical behavior described within. The story opens with its two devilish narrators, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), as they break the fourth wall and go all the way back to the invention of money to explain exactly how oligarchs around the world can make, hide, and steal money across the globe. These scenes are relatively funny, though they tip-toe dangerously close to the kind of simplistic explanation that pollutes recent Adam McKay films. Oldman and Banderas are also part of the film proper as the wealthy owners of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, from which the massive leak came. The firm was primarily used by clients to set up shell companies in island nations with favorable tax policies, sometimes for totally legal tax avoidance, but often for illegal tax evasion and fraudulent activities.

The Laundromat

The human face of this greed comes from Meryl Streep, playing Ellen Martin, a retiree whose husband is killed in an accident while on vacation. He has a life insurance policy, but she’s expecting a seven-figure settlement from the tour company. However, the company’s insurance was sold to them by a fraudster operating shell companies, which sends Ellen on a quest to find exactly who is responsible for paying for her husband’s death. Along the way there are heartbreaking failures, like when she flies to the Caribbean Island of Nevis only to find out that the company’s address is actually just a post office box. And mixed in with her quest for the truth are vignettes describing some of the corruption mentioned in the papers.

Aside from a murder subplot, Soderbergh and Burns keep the film light and comic, as if the only response to corruption on such a massive scale is to laugh. The director keeps his camera on the move, and he lights many of the scenes to either have the cool glow of office fluorescent lighting or the washed-out glare of tropical settings. It’s not the most soothing or attractive look, but Soderbergh has often favored lighting that suits the film’s mood and setting, even if he occasionally turns on the glitz and glamour for something like his Ocean’s films.

It’s clear that Streep had a great time working with Soderbergh on The Laundromat, their first collaboration. In addition to playing Ellen, she has a second role that eagle-eyed viewers will spot underneath pounds of makeup and padding, but she also strips down all the makeup to reveal what looks like her true self — Meryl, not Ellen. It’s for a surprisingly passionate speech in an otherwise cynical film that will briefly make audiences think that something can be done to stop all this corruption. Whether that’s true or not is another issue.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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