MCU’s satisfying ‘Endgame’

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 18, 2019
Photo by: Marvel Studios Chris Evans again plays Captain America in "Avengers: Endgame."

Owls Head — Avengers: Endgame (Marvel Studios, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 181 min.). If one is a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, and I am, one has to feel loved by the completely satisfying “Avengers: Endgame,” which wraps up an 11-year, 22-film adventure in the MCU. Not everybody gets out alive, but sacrifice is always an important element to victory. This film is a direct sequel to “Avengers: Infinity War,” but also revisits characters and ongoing stories from the other films.

The first hour is a mostly quiet buildup that goes from depressing to a reckoning with Thanos to bittersweet reunions. In fact, the film is loaded with emotional moments, especially in the second hour, when the team travels into the past to try and counterbalance the destruction Thanos has wrought, as, at the end of the previous film, he used the six Infinity Stones to wipe out 50 percent of all life in the galaxy.

Already devastated by loss, which not only affected some Avengers – Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) are among the disappeared -- but also the families of those who remained. The Avengers left – Captain America (Chris Evans), new leader Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), new version Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a humorously overweight Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – seek revenge on Thanos (Josh Brolin) as well as try to recover the glove with the Infinity Stones. Their numbers are bolstered by Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), recently introduced in her own film, and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thanos' daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan), both rescued by Captain Marvel from an energy-depleted spaceship in the void of space. Unfortunately, Thanos has destroyed the Infinity Stones, so there can be no undoing of his purge of life.

The film then jumps forward five years, where it looks like mankind has given up on a lot of things it enjoyed in the past, including baseball and residential area upkeep. However, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) comes back from the Quantum Realm, where he had been stuck when the Pyms disappeared mid-mission. Earth’s five years were only five hours for him. Ant-Man comes up with a plan to use the Quantum Realm as a kind of time machine, with the Avengers going into the past to obtain each Infinity Stone before Thanos does, so they could bring everyone missing back to life.

The journeys to the past make up most of the second, most-satisfying hour of the film. Recruited to join the effort is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Suffice it to say that Thanos learns of the plan, leading to a huge battle on Earth – a battle with so much going on that it is a bit hard to take it all in. The film was directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, who also helmed “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War,” and was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who co-wrote all four films. The film spends time looking back and those are some of the special moments.

Bonus features include audio commentary by the two directors and two screenwriters, plus a separate Blu-ray disc of extras, including six deleted scenes (4:51; including a kneeling tribute and a funny scene between Thor and Rocket) and a gag reel (1:58). Featurettes include a very nice remembrance of Stan Lee, with previously recorded interview bits and scenes of his many film cameos (7:15); a look at the casting of Downey as Iron Man at a time when he was not considered a family-friendly actor (5:25); a very good look at creating Captain America, including the source comics (12:18); a piece on Black Widow (7:25); a look at the Russo Brothers (5:01); a look at the strong female characters in the MCU (4:52); and a brief look at “Bro Thor,” including the 60- to 70-pound fat suit that Hemsworth wore. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Poms (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 91 min.). This is a feel-good movie that works emotionally even as it should not, script-wise. A radiant Diane Keaton leads the ensemble cast as Martha Walker, who has given up her cancer treatments before they were to start, sold everything and moved from the big city to a retirement community in Sun Springs, Georgia. Not a joiner, but required to belong to at least one club, Martha forms a cheerleading club. She had finally made her high school’s cheerleading squad her senior year, but had to quit before ever performing due to her mother’s illness.

Martha’s foil in all of this is her new neighbor, Sheryl (a fine, fun Jacki Weaver), who conducts illegal poker games in her house and lets her high school-aged grandson (Charlie Tahan as Ben) illegally live with her. Like most retirement communities, no one under age 55 is permitted to live in them. Sheryl tries to get Martha to loosen up and get involved in her shenanigans, which include going to the community’s many funerals for the free food.

Vicki B (Celia Weston) runs the approval of clubs and has taken an instant dislike to Martha. Vicki B easily manipulates the community’s law enforcement officer (Bruce McGill as Chief Carl). It is a mixed style of dancers and would-be dancers who come out for the club. They include Rhea Perlman as Alice, who could only join over her husband’s dead body; Phyllis Somerville as Helen, who has an over-protective son (Dave Maldonado as Tom); Pam Grier as Olive; Patricia French as Phyllis; Ginny MacColl as Evelyn; and Carol Sutton as Ruby.

Plot-wise, the film is pretty standard, except for Alice’s husband’s demise. Included is a try-out montage, a practice montage, an embarrassing viral video from a performance at a high school prep rally and the decision to ignore all the nay-sayers by performing in a big-time cheering competition – with only three weeks of rehearsal. Helping train the gals is high school cheerleader Chloe (Alisha Boe), who shot the viral mishap-laden video, but did not post it online.

Documentary director Zara Hayes both directs her first feature and keeps things moving briskly with a script she co-wrote with Shane Atkinson. Strangely, there are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

Tolkien (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 111 min.). While the film features some fine performances, especially by Nicholas Hoult as John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, and often looks marvelous, I’m not convinced the film needed to be made. Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford try to show how Tolkien’s early childhood, college and then World War I experiences influenced his future writings of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” The approach really only scratches the surface, except for Tolkien’s love of languages and ability to make up his own.

The film opens with Lt. Tolkien involved in the Battle of the Somme in France during World War I, before going back to his youth, specifically his mother moving him and his brother Hilary to Birmingham from the country. Throughout the film, there are six returns to the Somme as Tolkien searches franticly for one of his friends, Lt. Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). Smith is one of three friends Tolkien made at King Edward’s School, after he initially was picked upon. The other two were Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), the headmaster’s son, and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). The four, who formed the Tea Club and the Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) to mark their fellowship, each loved books and wanted to be in the arts, separately as a writer, composer, poet and artist.

First, though, was the move to industrial Birmingham and his mother’s death soon after. Care of the two orphaned boys (Harry Gilbey as young Tolkien, known as Ronald, and Guillermo Bedward as young Hilary) was left to Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) of TV’s “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), who gets them lodging at Mrs. Faulkner’s boarding house. A fellow orphan there is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who becomes the love of Tolkien’s life and eventual wife and mother to their four children. Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius”) plays philology Professor Joseph Wright, coming in at the 70-minute mark, as Tolkien decides to try for his class.

The two best sequences are between Tolkien and Edith, as they grow increasingly attracted to each other. The first takes place at a fancy restaurant, where they discuss the difference between the meaning of words versus sound, with Tolkien espousing his love of the phrase “cellar door,” before, being challenged by Edith, he begins to create a story on the spot. The second takes place in the bowels of a theater to the music of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” a performance they were turned away from because they were not dressed properly.

The Somme search scenes drag on, with lots of dead bodies and explosions, as well as mustard gas. The film presents a fevered Tolkien visualizing dragons and what night even be the Eye of Sauren. The film does much better when it sticks to Tiolkien’s youth and college days.

Bonus features include audio commentary by the director; seven deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary (12:37; in a nice one, young Tolkien speaks in Welsh); a stills gallery; and Hoult and Collins conversing about the film and their characters, in an HBO “First Look,” which also includes a lot of film clips (12:59). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.75 stars

The Swan Princess: Kingdom of Music (Sony DVD, G, 82 min.). This is a serviceable story for young girls that is set in the world of “The Swan Princess” (its 25th anniversary will see its first Blu-ray release on Oct. 29). Here, Princess Odette is now a mother and preparing a musical competition to honor her daughter’s naming day. Princess Alise is the daughter. There are five finalists for the competition, each of whom will sing on a different night. Of the six songs performed, one is very good, one is serviceable and the other four are fairly bad.

One of the competitors is Prince Li of Cathay, who has been instructed by his emperor father to win. Li is a bit stuck up, but soon warms to Alise, and she to him, even though an old boyfriend, Lucas, has reentered her life. Unbeknownst to Li is that his twin, Mei Li, has stowed away aboard his ship, as she seeks help from Odette and Derek for her boyfriend Chen, who has been cursed to live as a dragon, except for a couple minutes each day at sunset.

This is the ninth film in the series. Extras include sing-alongs for “Show Your Color” (1:36) and “Goodbye” (1:52), plus director Richard Rich’s acting out character notes for the animators (3:37). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1 star

Shadow (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 115 min.). With this film, acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) pushes the boundaries of wuxia action. Wuxia are films, or books, about ancient Chinese itinerant warriors. The film, which is set during China's Three Kingdom's era (AD 220-280), is mostly inky blacks and greys, except for skin tone and bursts of blood.

The prologue talks about three kingdoms who have fought for control of Jing City for decades. Currently, Yan and Pei have joined forces to take over the city, but the Yan Kingdom has occupied Jing City for 20 years, with growing resentment among the Pei. However, Pei’s king (Zhang Kei) is all for appeasement of Yan and even agrees to have his sister (Guan Xiaotong as Princess Qingping) become the concubine of the Yan Commander’s son. The Commander of Pei’s troops, who received a vicious upper breast wound while battling Yan’s master swordsman (Hu Jun as Yang), has groomed a look-alike replacement or shadow – he calls him Jing – who has issued a one-on-one challenge to Yang behind the king’s back.

Much of the film deals with Jing learning to fight from the Pei Commander, using umbrellas. Once in actual battle though, the umbrellas used are made of metal with sharp blades that also can be fired like knives. Additionally, these umbrellas – quite cinematic by the way – can be used like protective, attacking sleds once in Jing City, because the Pei Commander has a whole plan to attack the city, while the duel is serving as a distraction.

It is not until 70 minutes in that the metal umbrellas make their appearance, starting a solid 10 minutes of action. After the attack on Jing City, the film becomes very Shakespearean, with nearly everyone dying. Chao Deng plays both Jing and Commander Zi Yu.

The initial half-hour or so is slow going as the characters are introduced. The only other person who knows about the Commander Yu's double is his wife Madam (Sun Li), who has started to develop feelings for Jing. Once the film’s central combat action begins it is thrilling and well worth the wait. Director Zhang says the visual scheme is based on the brush techniques of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Bonus features include a seven-part making-of featurette (about 21 min. total), covering the director, playing two parts, the director and his family on his birthday (he collects foreign posters of his films), behind the scenes views and looks at personnel and the film’s large calligraphy. Zhang also more recently made “The Great Wall,” which did not cross over with Chinese and American audiences that well. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 1.5 stars

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