Posts Tagged ‘Bradley Cooper’

On the face of it, I’ve set myself a fool’s errand here : to review Avengers : Endgame on its own merits, completely divorced from its cultural context and all which came before it, may not even be possible. But once we get a few particulars out of the way, that’s precisely what I intend to do, those particulars being : This. Is. The. Biggest. Thing. Ever.

We’re talking the cinematic equivalent of your wedding day or the birth of your first kid — or so the Disney/Marvel marketing machine would have you believe, not that they’re necessarily wrong, depending on your own circumstances. The so-called “MCU” came into being when I was in my 30s, but I can only imagine what this must mean to people who literally grew up on this stuff. Ten years of big-budget spectacle after big-budget spectacle, all leading up to this — the spectacle.

And, on that level, not to give too much away too quickly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver. This movie is as big a production as anything Cecil B. DeMille could have dreamed of, plus a whole lot more. The scale is simply staggering. It starts — and ends — in surprisingly quiet, dare I say intimate, fashion, but in between it really is everything and the kitchen sink.That can be good, that can be bad, that can be some of each — and, on balance, the brothers manage to make the most of what amounts to a raft of corporate and circumstantial mandates. There’s no need to donwnplay the scope of their achievement, no matter how badly I despise the media conglomerate behind it all. They had a job to do, and they did it exceedingly well.

Long-time readers here will no doubt be surprised to read those words, given my long-standing antipathy toward most of the Marvel flicks, but once they started coming up with villains that posed a worthy challenge for their heroes — a process that took the better part of nine years — it seems as if a corner was turned. The stamp of auteurship afforded Ryan Coogler with Black Panther is nowhere to be found here, it’s true, but this also isn’t the by-the-numbers extended television episode that so many other MCU flicks have been. It’s probably fair to say it inhabits a middle ground — a “house style” production that nevertheless uses the strictures imposed upon it to its advantage. That takes some doing.

But, again, its own merits only is the rule of the day here. I do, however, need to preface that by saying I was not very enamored of this film’s predecessor, Avengers : Infinity War. After the aforementioned Black Panther I felt it was a massive step back, a reversion to the norm, a dour reinforcement of the status quo. So I was not expecting to like its “back half” very much at all.

Cue some genuine surprises : a central role for Karen Gillan’s perpetually under-utilized Nebula. Several unexpected “ultimate fates” for Josh Brolin’s cosmic baddie, Thanos. A turn toward the nearly likable for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton taking on the “conscience of the team” role usually occupied by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. A time-travel plotline that re-visits a number of key events in “MCU” history without once feeling like a nostalgic “greatest hits” reel or, even worse, a victory lap. And a sense of consequence hanging over every scene that nevertheless avoids becoming a Sword of fucking Damocles.

I’m gonna take a minute, at this point, to single out screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a praise — they had a lot to stuff into this particular stocking, both in terms of the “B” they had to get to from “A,” but also in regards to figuring out how to give a hell of a lot pf people something to do. Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Angela Basset, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Natalie Portman all draw a shorter end of the stick than the rest of the cast, but damn — in addition to the already-name-dropped Evans, Downey, Brolin, Gillan, and Renner, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lilly, Chris Hemsworth, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Rene Russo, Chris Pratt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danai Gurira, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper all have important shit to do in this story. That’s pretty remarkable any way you slice it, and the logistics of the whole thing — well, I can scarcely being to imagine. Our intrepid authorial duo must have been keeping Excedrin in business for a good while there.

As for the stuff everyone really wants to know about, well, I’m going to keep things “spoiler-free” given the movie literally just opened at the time of this writing, but any long-time comics reader can tell you — death is never permanent, especially death on as large a scale was we were left with in the last flick. And it’s not even the folks who did die that necessarily have the most to worry about — it’s the ones who didn’t, because they’re the ones who’ll be called upon to pay whatever price is required to bring everyone else back. Which means that, yes, certain “character arcs” do come to an end here — and these are all pitch-perfect, whether tragic in nature or (here’s a glimmer of hope for those who haven’t seen it yet and may be rooting for a favorite or two) otherwise. Every hero gets a hero’s ending at the end of their hero’s journey and — forget it, that’s enough of the word “hero” in one sentence.

Production design, cinematography, costumes, locations — all are scaled to fit here, which is to say big, but the surprising amount of personality that finds its way through to the surface is what I think is this film’s most noteworthy feature. Against all odds, you’ll find yourself invested in these proceedings, even if you’re as far away from being a Marvel fan as yours truly. I didn’t go into the theater actively looking to find things to pick on when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, but I didn’t think they’d be too hard to find. To my more than pleasant surprise, apart from a handful of stupid plot holes, nothing to add to the negative side of the ledger leaped out. Believe me when I say — I’m still trying to figure out how the hell that happened.

As to whether or not this is the “end” of something, as its title suggests — I’ve gotta say that, on the whole, it doesn’t feel like it is. More like the culmination of a whole lot of “somethings,” in preparation for the next act. The Marvel blockbuster machine shows no signs of slowing down — and for the first time probably ever I actually find myself interested to see what it has in store for us next.


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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.


What is it that makes a hero?

There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people reading this (in other words, probably a few hundred if my daily wordpress stats are to be believed), but there are some character traits that I think we would all consider to be heroic : willingness to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others, truthfulness, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, staying firm in one’s ideals (assuming they’re decent ideals, of course) even when it’s dangerous to do so, etc.

By those standards, then, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” Chris Kyle — who is credited by the Navy with over 160 kills in Iraq, while in his  memoir, American Sniper (upon which, needless to say, Clint Eastwood’s new film is based), he himelf puts the number northwards of 250 — probably meets most people’s definition of what a “hero” is. But let’s take a moment to consider things more closely, shall we?

Without wishing to step into a political minefield (whoops, wrong military metaphor there) with this review, let me just state right off the bat that I haven’t read Kyle’s book, but I have been following the ongoing brouhaha about the movie’s divergence from it online, and I find a lot of what I’ve heard about what Kyle wrote (or, more than likely, had ghost-written for him) fairly troubling : he says that he “enjoyed” killing; that he “never hesitated”; that he considered any and all Iraqis — women, kids, you name it — to be “enemies”; that the fact he took so many lives “never troubled him.” Chances are that an autobiography written by Henry Lee Lucas would read much the same way, yet one guy was buried with full military honors while the other sits in a prison cell for the rest of his life.

Now, hold on a minute — before you think I’m necessarily equating what Kyle did with the actions of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, rest assured that I am fully aware that numerous legal distinctions exist between murder on the field of combat and murder for the sheer, depraved love of it — but let’s remember that Kyle did, in fact, claim to have “enjoyed” his work, to the point where even boasted of bringing his “skills” to the homefront and “taking out” numerous “looters” during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while in the employ of the notorious Blackwater “security” firm. If that’s indeed the case, then the line between trained killer in combat and serial killer on the streets (a line that’s drawn, I suspect, as much to ease the collective conscience of the public as it is  the conscience of the individual soldier) is pretty thin in this case.

Eastwood and his screenwriter, Jason Hall, wisely ignore this period in their protagonist’s life, not only because showing Kyle working for Blackwater would immediately piss off about half the people in the theater, but because that particular piece of chest-thumping on his part could never be confirmed, and our guy Chris was known to fabricate stuff when it suited his purposes — just ask Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation of character suit brought against the late sniper’s estate when Kyle boasted of having punched the wrestler-turned-governor out after Ventura supposedly said (at a Navy SEAL gathering, of all places) that he was glad so many SEALs got killed in Iraq because we never should have been there in the first place.

Now,  there are those who would argue that Ventura, who isn’t always known for engaging in the most responsible rhetoric himself, was only getting a taste of his own medicine and that in some weird way he and Kyle probably deserved each other, but no matter how much you might dislike ol’ Jesse, you’d have to be born yesterday to think that he’d be flat-out stupid enough to tell a room full of his fellow SEALs that he was glad a whole bunch of their brethren were dead. So Chris Kyle and the truth weren’t always, shall we say, strong allies  (there’s one of the qualities of heroism we opened this review with scratched off the list, then), but to me the most disturbing thing here is that even if the American Sniper never killed anybody in New Orleans — and I sincerely hope he didn’t — he wanted people to think that he did, and I’m sorry, but that’s just plain fucked up.

American Sniper Movie

You’d never guess that Kyle had this rather ugly side to his personality from Bradley Cooper’s portrayal in the film, though. Cooper does a fairly decent acting job here — apparently he put on 40 pounds of pure muscle for the role — and his version of Kyle comes across as a well-meaning, “standup guy”-type who ultimately grows to have doubts about both the war in Iraq itself and his place in it. In short, he shows both a conscience and a depth of character that the person he’s portraying never did. And that disconnect from reality is at the heart of my concerns with American Sniper.

Just to lay my cards on the table, I initially had no intention of seeing this movie — it looked like another glorified military recruitment ad, and as far as I’m concerned the Pentagon can do its own PR work without enlisting Hollywood’s help, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. To be sure, Eastwood has crafted a technically fine film here, with some standout scenes that drip with tension and are beautifully shot (the one that shows Kyle running through a dust storm in order to hop into the back of a fleeing troop carrier is especially memorable), and there’s no doubt that I was surprised to see a notable right-winger like Clint take such a nuanced approach to this subject matter. I expected two-plus hours of macho flag-waving, and ended up seeing a reasonably gripping and emotionally involving tale about the heavy price that war claims on the part of those who participate in it. It’s no Saving Private Ryan (incidentally, Steven Spielberg was originally attached to this project as director, but pulled out in the rather early going) or Full Metal Jacket, by any means, but it certainly shows that the battlefield is no picnic and does so in a way that most level-headed people on either side of the Iraq war debate will find fair-minded and thought-provoking.

Let’s be honest, though — not everybody is all that fair-minded, and some of the online attacks that critics who were less than enthusiastic about this film have been subjected to have been just plain unhinged. A recent piece on The Guardian website showed just a sampling of the ugly tweets that reactionary extremists have directed at various cinematic scribes, and it’s pretty ugly stuff, which leads one to wonder — what, exactly, is at the core of this desperate need to lionize the actions of a guy who’s killed either 160-ish or 250-ish (depending on whose numbers you believe) people? If you come into the debate with the view that the war in Iraq was somehow fought for the purposes of “keeping us safe” or “protecting our country” or somesuch, fine, but at least be honest enough to ask yourself — would any of the people Kyle killed because they posed a danger to his fellow soldiers have even been a danger to them if we hadn’t invaded their country in the first place? And what lengths would you be willing to go to in order to drive out a foreign army that showed up on your doorstep and plunged your nation into a conflict that you and your fellow citizens never asked for? Shit, as much as I actively despised George W. Bush and as much as I’m profoundly disappointed-to-the-point-of-disgust with Barack Obama, I wouldn’t want another nation to come in here and depose either one of them, and if said nation’s military forces were tearing through my neighborhood, I’d probably be willing to get up off my ass and try to fight them off (not that I’d be much good at it).

Again, no disrespect intended here to any readers who think there was something noble and/or just about our invasion of Iraq, but if you really want to be able to defend that position, you would be well advised to consider it from all perspectives in order to formulate a truly solid view — and the same goes for those of us who weren’t in favor of the war; I know that my knee-jerk initial opposition to it couldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and it took a certain amount of time before I was able to fully grasp all the intricacies of the issue and to state in cogent terms why this was a war of choice and not necessity that was  being fought more for the sake of corporate profits than anything to do with notions of freedom or security. If you buy into Chris Kyle as portrayed on film, those same doubts, and that same feeling of profound disillusionment, eventually came to inform his own outlook on the war — but that, as it turns out, is all just propaganda of a different sort than I’d be banking on before seeing American Sniper.


Even so, there’s no denying that it’s effectively constructed propaganda,  and that it’s propaganda of a rather surprising nature. My initial concerns that Eastwood was going to engage in a glorification of the war and of his protagonist (concerns that I stated pretty bluntly on a facebook conversation thread that earned me my very first internet “stalker” and gave me a taste, in microcosm, of what some of the “real” critics have been forced to put up with) were ill-founded, but his decision instead to engage in a full-on rehab effort of Chris Kyle’s reputation could, perhaps, be even more of a whitewash than the one I was worried about.

Or is it? There’s little doubt that if, say, Oliver Stone indulged in this sort of historical revisionism that he’d be positively raked over the coals for it while Dirty Harry finds himelf more or less getting a free pass, but at least American Sniper gives a realistic accounting of what most vets who have been forced to kill go through psychologically, and shows in a fairly unflinching light how combat, and the inability to leave it behind, can seriously damage a soldier’s home life, as well, by way of Sienna Miller’s very nice turn as Kyle’s long-suffering wife, Taya. This may not be Chris Kyle’s story per se, but it’s a pretty good story nonetheless.


Up until the end, of course, when our  sharpshooter met his death at the hands of another veteran under circumstances that can be fairly described as almost mind-bogglingly bizarre and tragic. One thing both American Sniper the book and the film seem to agree on is that helping his fellow vets was important to Kyle, and whether or not one perceives of his actions on the battlefield as being “heroic,” his volunteerism in service to his brothers in arms certainly was. Eastwood declines the opportunity to show the shooting range incident that we’re all no doubt familiar with itself, but in a moment of supreme Hollywood cheesiness he takes second to portray the other party involved as being a leering, sinister, “creepy” figure — which is sort of a shame because he spends so much of the rest of the film eschewing such simplistic, pat, two-dimensionality.

Oh well. Clint might take the easy way out, but I give him a certain amount of credit for not taking it nearly so easy up to that point. I just wish that Chris Kyle as he really was bore more resemblance to his Hollywood version — even if I’ll always be troubled by the fact that they felt the need to clean up his story in the first place.

To drag us back to where we started, then, it seems that the media is determined to make a hero out Chris Kyle one way or another — regardless of whether or not you, I, or anyone else thinks that he was. When he was alive,  it was through a book that portrayed him as a ruthless, reflexive, unthinking, unfeeling killing machine, who never lost a moment’s sleep over his actions and always felt he was in the right. Now that he’s gone, it’s though a film that shows him as an actual human being suffering the same sorts of psychological traumas that almost any of us, apart from the truly psychotic, would be going through in his situation. The latter makes for better storytelling on the silver screen now that the war in which he served is supposedly “over”, while the former made for effective inspirational/recruitment material while said war was still going on — but neither addresses the key issue of why it’s apparently so important that his guy be considered a “hero” in the first place.