After finding myself considerably more than pleased with writer/director Scott Frank’s 2014 adaptation of modern noir master Lawrence Block’s gritty PI drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, I decided, in spite (or maybe because?) of its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, to track down the only other cinematic take on Block’s work (and, more specifically, on his legendary protagonist, former-cop-turned-unlicensed-gumshoe Matt Scudder), 1986’s 8 Million Ways To Die. As things turned out, I had to go the Blu-ray route with this one since it’s not available for streaming anywhere so far as I can tell, but hey, things could have been worse — the Kino Lorber Blu (and,I presume, DVD, although I didn’t actually check to see if it’s available in that format) is actually a semi-recent release, dating back to October of 2017, and if I’d been determined to track this flick down before that, I may have been forced to rely on, say, the kind of seedy underworld connections that Scudder himself has to depend on from time to time.

Speaking of Scudder, this earlier celluloid incarnation is brought to life by Jeff Bridges, who’s certainly rock solid in the title role, bobbing and weaving between every sort of psychological polarity possible as he takes on what first appears to be a fairly open-and-shut case of a prostitute named Sunny (played by Alexandra Paul) who wants to get out from under the clutches of her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), only to suddenly find himself in the midst of  a murder investigation when she turns up dead and he ends up saddled with a self-appointed “partner” in the form of another hooker, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), whose reasons for putting herself in the middle of such an obviously dangerous situation are as complex and elusive as everything else about this feisty potential femme fatale. All signs point to Chance being the killer right out of the gate, of course, but Scudder is soon glad for the extra help he’s got when it turns out that the actual culprit might very well be coolly sociopathic drug boss Angel Maldonado, played with understated-but-no-doubt-thick menace by Andy Garcia.

Oh, and did I mention that Scudder is barely six months sober, and that the more stressful this case gets, the better the bottle starts looking to him?

Hal Ashby may seem an interesting choice to direct an ostensible hard-boiled thriller like this, given that he’s best known for cult-favorite comedies like Harold And Maude and Being There, but he captures the seedy L.A. underworld of the early-to-mid 1980s with a considerable amount of sleek style and “street-level”authenticity that, fair enough, isn’t gonna make anybody forget about To Live And Die In L.A., much less Vice Squad, anytime too soon, but will certainly do in a pinch — and he undoubtedly gets a series of terrific performances from each and every one of his principal players. This, then, is the point at which you are more or less obligated to wonder this film died at the box office so quickly, has such a lousy reputation (as well as that 0% RT score), and was even unavailable for home viewing, apart from its initial VHS release, until about nine months ago.

My theory? It’s all down to one serious mess of a screenplay.

Oliver Stone made the first pass at it and is, the film historians tell me, the guy responsible for transposing the action from its original printed-page setting of New York to the West Coast, but when his treatment failed to make the studio happy, R. Lance Hall was brought in for another go at things — only to find his version largely re-written by an uncredited Robert Towne. Ashby, however, fundamentally dissatisfied with even this third script, encouraged his actors to simply improvise when and where it suited both them and him, and as a result, we end up with a movie that has a very consistent look and feel that’s constantly undermined by its scattershot, near-pathologically inconsistent tone. A movie that knows what it wants to appear to be, but little to no idea of what it actually is.

In his introduction to the recent, and highly faithful, graphic novel adaptation of his book by writer/artist John K. Snyder III (which retains the original title of Eight Million Ways To Die — no numeric shorthand here! — and is well worth checking out), author Block makes his disdain for this film pretty clear (even while singling out Bridges and Garcia for deserved praise), and I can certainly see why he wouldn’t care too much for it but, unlike most critics, I can’t bring myself to see it as a total loss. The acting is too strong, and the directing too assured, for that. It’s not great, mind you, and maybe not even especially good, but it’s easy enough to see that there was something that probably could have been pretty special hidden underneath all those re-writes (official and otherwise) — and that seems to be the view taken by Bridges in the full-length commentary track included on the disc, as well as in the various on-camera interviews with Arquette, Paul, Garcia, and Block himself that, along with a stills gallery, round out Kino Lorber’s fairly comprehensive extras package.

All told, then, 8 Million Ways To Die is far from the unmitigated disaster that it is, largely, remembered as — to the extent that it’s remembered at all. It’s probably of interest only to the curious, granted, but if you number yourself among that crowd, what the hell — it’s worth at least a rental, although probably no more than that.

Sometimes. you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — am I right?

I know that I certainly was the other night and so, after a bit of browsing, I decided to scratch the particular celluloid itch I was feeling by streaming writer-director Scott Frank’s 2014 cinematic adaptation of legendary hard-boiled crime fiction author Lawrence Block’s popular novel A Walk Among The Tombstones via our local cable service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD should you choose to go that route), and whaddya know? What I found underneath the typically slick, borderline-“artsy” modern direction and cinematography, and decidedly lurid subject matter, was actually an old-school PI drama, anchored by some very strong performances, that would more than likely make the likes of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and even Humphrey Bogart proud.

That means it comes with one fairly big downside, though — for all attempted twists and turns it’s actually pretty predictable, but we’ll get to that in a bit more detail in fairly short order. First the good : bucking his post-Taken typecasting as a middle-aged “tough guy,” Liam Neeson reminds us all that that he’s actually a multi-faceted and cerebral actor in his lead turn as troubled former-cop-turned-unlicensed gumshoe Matt Scudder, a guy who is haunted by the memory of a little girl one of his stray bullets killed back when he was “on the job,” and is now (okay, fair enough, seemingly constantly) struggling to maintain his fragile newly-found sobriety. Not exactly looking for work, he’s nevertheless intrigued enough by an offer that comes his way when his old pal Howie (portrayed by Eric Nelsen), acting as a “go-between,” lets him know about a potentially-unsavory character who needs some strictly “off the books” assistance — and soon enough, Scudder is back in action after first refusing the gig, cajoled into the stereotypical “one last job” by smooth-talking (and ominous as all hell) drug dealer Kenny Kristo (brought to life with considerable aplomb by Dan Stevens, who’s a million miles away for his Downton Abbey role with this one), whose wife has been kidnapped by a couple of psycho thugs — who, it seems, may have gone ahead and killed her even after their ransom demands were met. In due course, Sudder’s investigations leads him to conclude they may also have done the same to several others, all of whom seem to track back to Kristo’s unsavory life and business in one way or another, and then — they strike again. While Scudder is on the case. And, of course, there’s no way he’s gonna let that stand.

Speaking of those kidnappers/potential killers, they’re a couple of seriously fucked-up dudes, and actors David Harbour (who plays Ray) and Adam David Thompson (who plays Albert) definitely both reek of psychotic menace. What they’re really up to, and why, is pretty well spelled out far in advance of being stated/shown explicitly (told you we’d get back to the predictability), but it almost doesn’t matter because it’s so fucking unsettling that it could easily be argued that knowing — or suspecting — what this deranged duo’s “game” is might just make things even worse.

There’s plenty of solid acting on display from the more “minor” players here, as well, with special accolades due Maurice Compte as Scudder’s long-suffering sidekick/foil Danny Ortiz, and Brian “Astro” Bradley, who not only goes toe to toe with heavyweight talents such as Neeson, but arguably even manages to steal evey scene he’s in as smart-but-cagey street kid T.J. Each and every role is straight from the “genre archetypes” playbook, it’s true (although, curiously, no “femme fatale” is on hand), but who’s gonna argue when they’re all fleshed out with this much style, skill, and depth? I’m certainly not — and neither should you.

Throw in some well-realized “period piece” authenticity that really makes you feel the grit and grime of what remains of New York’s seedy underbelly circa 1999, and what you’ve got here is a film that more than makes up for by means of execution what it lacks in originality. A Walk Among The Tombstones may not be terribly (okay, what the heck, even moderately) innovative, but like I said, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — and the next time you are, you could do a hell of a lot worse than this one.

I honestly feel halfway guilty about including a film shot only about a six-or seven-hour drive from my own house as part of my occasional “International Weirdness” series here on this site, but when you live in Minneapolis and the flick in question was made in Winnipeg, well — that’s how it goes, I guess. There isn’t much geographic distance between our towns, but there is that US/Canada border.

Winnipeg’s independent film scene has been fairly robust in recent years, as most know — comparisons to the 1990s “Toronto New Wave” have abounded — but our northern neighbors like their genre stuff, too, and 2015’s Dark Forest, brainchild of writer/director Roger Boyer, seeks to do something a little different with the classic “slasher” premise, namely : deconstruct it and turn it on its head at the same time. How best to do this? Well, how about by making it plain as day that’s what you’re up to from the outset?

The identity of the killer is never in question here, nor is a hockey or Halloween mask necessary — Peter, our villain du jour, is the kind of psycho we know all too well : a domestic abuser, and his “motivation” is equally “ripped from the headlines,” in that he’s pissed off about his girlfriend, Emily (played by Laurel McArthur) splitting for a weekend of camping in the woods with her girlfriends Michelle (Veronica Ternopolski), Jolene (Weronika Sokalska), and Francine (Jalin Desloges) and not inviting his deranged ass along. In fact, he’s so mad about the whole thing (as well as wise to the obvious fact that some kind of “intervention” will probably be taking place) that he’s gonna head out to the (dark) forest to find them and kill anyone and everyone who gets in his way — before doing in the ladies, of course.

Yeah, as you’ve probably guessed, the ’80s influences are apparent here, even beyond the basic “teens in the woods” set-up —we’ve got a “hot” car, “hot” girls, a nerd, even a synth-music score. But Boyer, despite having (obviously, if we’re being honest) very little money to work with finds a way to mix the old and the new by ditching the “damsels in distress” paradigm in favor of the  modern “strong female protagonists” we are, thankfully, becoming more accustomed to. So we’re not looking at anything entirely original by any means, but we’re not strictly mired in yet another “throwback,” either. That, my friends, is what I call a relief.

The film — which, incidentally and before I forget, is available free for streaming to Amazon Prime members and has also been released on Blu-ray and DVD —has its flaws, to be sure, but all the principal players are at the very least competent, and Scullard positively relishes his chance to ham it up as a homicidal maniac, while giving his performance just enough “real world” gravitas to avoid becoming a caricature. The supporting cast doesn’t necessarily fare as well, largely being as unprofessional as, let’s face it, we should expect from a bare-bones production such as this, but even there, the occasional standout — such as Genevieve DeGraves as Kim — punches above their weight class and manages to make a solid impression.

Now, I do recall saying something about Scullard also turning the classic “slasher” formula on its head, as well, but we won’t give away too much about that. Suffice to say these ladies are no shrinking violets and that leads to some — interesting things happening. Which is a pretty fair summation of Dark Forest on the whole, come to think of it : yes, you’ve seen most of what’s on offer here done before, and you’ve seen it done better, but it’s ambitious enough to want to at least do them differently, and it’s well-executed enough to get more than it probably should out of what it has to work with.

 

 

Somebody, please, tell me : where’s all the hate coming from?

Okay, maybe a better way to put that would be — why is all the hate coming in the first place because, strictly speaking, we know where it’s coming from : just as the gaming scene was disrupted mightily by right-wing trolls who didn’t want any women around and coalesced into a toxic stew known as “Gamergate,” and the comics scene has recently found itself fending off a broadly anti-diversity rump of retrograde fans who have taken to labeling their harassment and intimidation campaign “Comicsgate,” the Star Wars scene has been besieged by an as-yet-untitled, but damn noisy and annoying, group of right-wing ostensible “fans” who have decided that their (again, ostensibly) beloved franchise has been besieged by “political correctness,” and that the films are now loaded with so-called “SJW messaging.”

It’s all bullshit, of course : if anything, the Star Wars films are as obliquely pro-war as ever (hell, it’s right there in the name, so maybe it’s not so “oblique” after all), but that never stopped a bunch of noisemakers aligned with the “alt-right” from trying to gin up a controversy where none exists for the sake of hopefully making a few bucks. To date, actress Kelly Marie Tran has gotten the worst of it, her turn as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi — hell, her very existence — pissing off the troglodytes to the point where she has literally shut down all her social media accounts after getting understandably sick of literally hundreds or overtly racist messages and comments being flung at her every day, but for reasons I can’t fathom, these same douchebags also decided well in advance of its release that the spin-off film Solo : A Star Wars Story was going to suck.

Again, though, as always, the dipshit brigade was dead wrong.

And, again, that hasn’t shut them the fuck up, and at this point it’s worth noting that the crossover between the various “gates” is getting pronounced — not just in terms of their vile politics and their even more vile tactics, but even in terms of the very people involved : noted “Comicsgate” shit-disturber/untalented hack artist Ethan Van Sciver, for instance, has recently been migrating over Star Wars fandom and has made thousands of dollars selling bootleg “Soylo” t-shirts (“soy,” like “cuck” and “SJW,” being favored derogatory terminology deployed by “alt-right” types against their philosophical opponents) that I’m thinking Disney’s lawyers might want to take a good look at being that they use the exact same logo as the Solo film.

Tell you what, though — even if Van Sciver justifiably finds himself getting his ass sued off, he’ll probably still claim a pyrrhic victory : Solo, you see, has been the first legit box-office disappointment in Star Wars history, and the “anti-SJW” crowd is taking all the credit for it.

Which, say it with me now, is also complete BS, as there’s nothing even remotely “SJW,” or even political in any way, on offer in this flick. I don’t know why this movie hasn’t done so well — although it’s worth noting that when all is said and done it’ll probably still turn a healthy profit — but I do know that politics has nothing to do with it. Solo is essentially what any Han Solo “origin story” should be : a space western suitable for all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and political persuasions. A 12-year-old kid who cried with his mom the night Trump won the election and a crusty 60-year-old in a “MAGA” hat can each find plenty to love here, because the film’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious : Alden Ehrenreich is a pitch-perfect choice in the title role; Woody Harrelson’s rogue-ish Tobias Beckett is a fantastic foil/mentor; his partner in crime and life, Thandie Newton’s Val, is equal parts tough as nails and achingly human; Paul Bettany cuts a genuinely menacing and mysterious figure as chief villain Dryden Voss;  Donald Glover is spot-on stupendous as a young Lando Calrissian; Emilia Clarke is coolly intriguing yet eminently relatable as Han’s love interest, Qi’ra; hell, even Joonas Suatomo seems to approach the role of Chewbacca with a little extra heart. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that all the principal players flat-out nail it in their roles.

I’m thinking this all flows from the top down — veteran blockbuster director Ron Howard was brought in approximately halfway through to rescue what by all accounts had been a flagging production, and armed with a screenplay by old Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, the air of tonally perfect professionalism established is unmistakable : the humor (of which there is plenty) is well-timed and genuinely funny, the battle scenes and their attendant special effects spectacular, the various subplots compelling — seriously, this is a “popcorn movie” that’s firing on all cylinders all the way through, and more importantly, it has everythingStar Wars fan could possibly want, and nothing they don’t.

For all that, though, very little feels forced, there’s no sense a “checklist” Howard and the Kasdans are working from is having its various boxes ticked off : yeah, how the hell Solo became such a good “space cards” player is never really explained and just needs to be taken as a given, and they do rush on pretty quickly from a central character’s death, so much so that it feels downright callous, and sure, the third act contains a bit too much set-up material for a sequel that will now probably never happen (although there’s a real jaw-dropper among these foreshadowings that ties this flick into Lucas’s much-maligned prequel trilogy) — but apart from that, everything here really flows from scene to scene quite nicely.

And speaking of “flow,” the entire film positively flies by, it’s two-hour-plus runtime over with all too soon. But you know what? You’ll be smiling the whole way, because Solo : A Star Wars Story isn’t just the franchise’s best outing since The House Of The Mouse took over (well over 12 parsecs ago now), it’s the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

So, where’s all the hate coming from? Well, when I put the question out to twitter as to where the supposed “SJW messaging” in this movie was to be found, I only got one response, that from a person I recognized as being linked with “Comicsgate” (some of them follow me out of sheer spite, I think), who opined that the “problem” with it was that it featured a “miscegenation relationship” (Harrelson and Newton) and “acted like it was perfectly normal.”

The hate, then? It’s coming from racist fucking assholes. And any movie that pisses them off is probably pretty damn good — this one certainly is.

 

In recent years, micro-budget VOD steaming horror releases have become something of my stock-in-trade around these parts —  and yet, in recent months, as I’ve devoted most of my blogging time to getting a good backlog of material up on my Four Color Apocalypse comics review site, I’ve had disturbingly little time to not only write about, but to even watch them. Still, despite very little “wiggle room” in my schedule of late, once in awhile you just gotta scratch the “homemade horror” itch, and to that effect, last night I was browsing through the new additions on Amazon Prime, and settled on a very recent (as in, 2018) release from writer/director Art Arutyunyan entitled Armenian Haunting, purportedly focused on a family curse that dates back to the days of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in the early 20th century.

This is a crucial, and tragic, bit of history that is often overlooked, chiefly because the Turkish government still does its level best to sweep it under the rug, so it’s good to see a film — particularly an American-made film (hey, don’t let the title fool you) such as this one — shine some light on it, but good intentions don’t necessarily make for a good flick, and I’m sorry to report that’s the case here.

The opening scene is reasonably compelling and well-staged, as we see a man first haunted by voices and then encountering a mysterious figure that causes him to literally drop dead from fright right on the spot, but from there on out things kind of spiral downwards — the dead man turns out to be the cousin of our protagonist, a college student named Maro (played by the obviously unprofessional, but by no means incompetent, Vaneh Assadourian), and is, in fact, the latest in a long line of members of her family who have met their ends under mysterious circumstances, so she does what I guess all people her age do under similar(-ish) circumstances : decides to video-document her investigation into the apparent curse.

Now, this isn’t exactly a “found footage” horror per se, but there are definite “mockumentary” elements to it, and they tend to be somewhat less-than-successfully presented : scenes shot outdoors, for instance, clearly had their sound dubbed in later, and the same is true of the (largely-appropriate) sound effects spliced into the indoor scenes, and some of Mara’s interview subjects — most notably her grandmother (Tamara Grigorian), who has a reasonably compelling story to tell — have an inexplicable habit of not facing the camera directly when they’re being recorded. Some of this is down to the film’s modest ($30,000, according to IMDB) budget, sure, but some of it makes no real sense whatsoever.

The acting’s as uneven as the production values, too : Kyle Patrick Darling does a pretty decent job as gender-fluid supporting character Garo, and Aneela Qureshi cuts a memorable figure as the film’s obligatory psychic, Aida, but beyond them — well, the less said, the better. These people are clearly trying more often than not, but they just don’t have the talent to make their work come across as being believable.

As events play out the genocide looms larger, given that the curse stems back to a perceived betrayal that occurred in its wake, but it’s difficult to remain engaged in the proceedings, even as they accrue real-life import, simply because a series of poorly-realized scenes (especially a couple of the purportedly “scary” ones) are so unintentionally comical that they literally take you out of the flow of events and turn your attention to shortcomings in the production’s execution. Again, some can’t be helped — but too many can. And that really sums up Armenian Haunting in a nutshell — Arutyunyan’s heart seems to be in the right place, but he probably should have waited until he had at least the ability, if not the resources, to tell the story he wanted in an effective manner.

 

Let’s not mince words : Mark Fuhrman is an absolute bastard. Of all the figures of questionable repute to have risen to public prominence in the wake of the so-called “Trial Of The Century” — Chris Darden, Marcia Clark, etc. — Fuhrman is far and away the worst of the lot, a vicious and despicable racist SOB who has been granted a new, and entirely undeserved, lease on life (career-wise, mind you) as a true crime author and Fox “news” contributor (there’s a shock — not). I know the public has a notoriously short attention span, but the idea that this guy isn’t rotting away in obscurity in a cabin in Idaho — or, better yet, in a prison cell (he was, after all, the only person in the orbit of the O.J. Simpson case to have ever been convicted of anything in relation to it) is absurd at best, downright sickening at worst. Good thing, then, for independent filmmaker Brian Heiss, who’s here to remind us of everything about the LAPD’s most notorious former detective that has been either forgotten or swept under the rug with his new, freely-available documentary, The Fuhrman Tapes.

The danger with an endeavor such as this, of course, is that it will immediately be dismissed by many as some sort of niche project aimed at a small and specific audience — namely the hard-core Simpson trial “junkies” who still maintain a fairly active internet presence (and this will appeal to that crowd, no question) — but Heiss, “armed” with nothing more than a whole bunch of archival footage and some basic editing and graphics software, has managed to construct, entirely on his own, a thoroughly compelling no-budget documentary that not only shines a bright and necessary light on a truly sick and disturbed individual and his utterly indefensible actions and statements, but goes one better by drawing a direct line between said actions and statements all the way through to the frankly out-of-control, and frequently murderous, racism we see running rampant in far too many municipal police departments here in the present day. What makes the cops think they can get away with so much of the shit they pull? Probably the fact that, in case after case after case, they do, in fact, get away with it — and that all started with Fuhrman, who got off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for perjury despite the fact that he essentially confessed, on tape, to false arrests, planting evidence, torture, police brutality, and even murder.

Fuhrman’s novel “justification” for all this — and this ranks right up there with Dan White’s notorious “Twinkie Defense” — is that he was just blowing off steam in meetings with a screenwriter who was looking to develop a movie script based on actual LAPD cases, that he was “exaggerating” in order to provide her with “compelling” material. Judge Lance Ito (remember him?), who was in the tank for the cops from day one, bought into this probable lie more or less without question, and consequently ended up allowing only a small fraction of literally dozens of hours of Fuhrman’s boastful recordings to be played for the jury, but even that short series of snippets was only ever heard once (on August 29th, 1995, to be specific) — until now.

In that sense, then, what Heiss manages to do best here — and this actually takes quite a bit more discipline than many very experienced documentarians demonstrate — is to get the hell out of the way and trust that the material he’s put together is strong enough to speak for itself. Listening to everything the jury heard, for the first time since they heard it, is absolutely damning for Fuhrman, and there’s simply no need to “snazz it up” with any tricky editing, or even subtle (or otherwise) editorializing. Hearing all of this again (or, as will likely be the case for most viewers, for the first time) is more than enough to remind one of why Fuhrman was “Public Enemy No. 1” for a short while — but more than that, it’s enough to make most reasonable folks wonder why the hell he still isn’t.

Which isn’t to say that Heiss doesn’t place the titular “Fuhrman Tapes” within the broader context of both LAPD history and his subject’s own life (and trust me when I say Fuhrman’s bigotry goes all the way back), but any filmmaker with their salt is going to set the table before serving up the main course. On a purely technical level he’s limited in terms of the tools he’s got at his fingertips — anybody putting together a film on their own time and their own dime is bound to be — and certain things like the utilization of computerized voice simulations give the proceedings a bit of an amateur “vibe” at times, but on the other hand I do sort of understand the dilemma Heiss was presented with here : after all, even if he did have a bunch of money with which to put this thing together, it would be damn difficult to find a voice-over actor willing to repeat some of the verbal diarrhea that came out of Fuhrman’s mouth in the parts of the tapes that have never been released to the public, but which this film still does its level best to fit into its overall narrative thrust, even if “on-the-fly” vocal substitutions were necessary. You could make an argument that Heiss could just have well have left some of this stuff alone and that his film would have been no less impactful — but for my money, I’m glad it’s in there, if only to paint a more fully monstrous picture of a truly reprehensible human being.

What we have here, then, at the end of the day is a fine (ultra-) independent documentary that presents a largely-obfuscated — perhaps even intentionally buried — part of our collective history, and exposes it not as some moment frozen in amber, but as a tragically necessary pretext to the excesses and abuses of law enforcement that happened (and continue to happen) in its wake. The Fuhrman Tapes is by no means an easy film to watch, but it’s gripping, smartly-constructed, and painfully relevant. Check it out at https://ojsimpson.co/mark-fuhrman-tapes-documentary/

 

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.