Posts Tagged ‘rene russo’

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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Nightcrawler

I don’t know if you watched the late local news tonight (I didn’t, I was at the movies — can you guess what I was seeing?), but odds are good that if you did, there was a psychopath in front of the camera waving a gun or a knife around, particularly if you live in a major urban area like New York or Los Angeles. Guys like that seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and sometimes they even wear uniforms and badges.

Well, writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to have hit on a nifty little twist to that scenario for his new(-ish) film, Nightcrawler — what if you put the psychopath behind the camera?

Nightcrawler (2014) trailer (Screengrab)

 

Louis Bloom (played with considerable relish by Jake Gyllenhaal) is our high-tech Travis Bickle, a guy with little formal education but a lot of drive who’s landed on hard times in our supposedly “recovering” economy and decides to makes lemons from lemonade by parlaying his skills as a small-time thief into a career as a freelance news videographer. By his own admission — despite the fact that he sounds like a living, breathing “Intro to Business 101” textbook and comes off as purely cynical and calculating — he understands people just fine, he just doesn’t like them very much, and every situation and individual he encounters is quickly filtered through the prism of the master plan he has to make it to the top of his newly-chosen profession. He needs other people, sure, but never on a permanent basis and the depths to which he’s willing to sink in order to “get the story” are truly breathtaking to behold. The word “ethics” clearly isn’t part of his vocabulary, and if the line between right and wrong doesn’t intimidate him, you can bet that the line between legal and illegal scares him even less. He’s a man on a mission, and you don’t want to stand in his way.

It’s pretty clear that Louis is aiming for much bigger things than we’d even realized when he blows off a big-time offer to join a veteran camera crew led by his chief rival (played by Bill Paxton) and opts instead to take over the market lock, stock , and barrel by the most ruthless and underhanded means possible — and he’s got an only semi-willing accomplice in his long-range schemes in the form of Nina Romina (Rene Russo, in full-on MILF mode), news director of TV station 6 in L.A., who is the first to give Louis his “big break” but quickly becomes dependent upon him for the sensationalistic footage she loves to lead with every night. Louis wants more than just a business relationship with his benefactor, though, and, ever the blunt negotiator, it’s implied that he succeeds in managing to trade his wares for sexual favors, as well. Anything for ratings, I guess.

nightcrawler-still

It’s obvious that Gilroy is tackling a number of themes with his stylish and intelligent thriller here — the victory of tabloid-style “journalism” over the real thing, the depravity that economic desperation can cause — but by and large Nightcralwer works best as a character study of Louis Bloom himself, and the whole movie rides on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders. To say that he delivers is an understatement of criminal proportions, as he’s positively electric and delivers one of the most maniacally intense and darkly charismatic performances I’ve seen in a major studio flick in some time. There’s plenty of Oscar talk swirling around his work here, as well there should be : this is career-defining stuff here.

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The film also works as a metaphor for “how to get ahead in business,” and can be seen — should you choose to do so — as a rather damning indictment of the sort of “cream” that rises to the top under capitalism : somebody with no morals, no conscience, and driven solely by empty ambition. Viewed through that lens, it’s fair to say that Nightcrawler is so damn good it’s scary.

So, the story goes that director Kenneth Brangah, distinguished Shakespearean actor that he is, had never so much as opened a single, solitary “Thor” comic book before agreeing to direct Marvel Studios” mega-budget blockbuster adaptation of said material. He dutifully then spent all of 15 minutes perusing old 1960s back-issues of the book before deciding more or less immediately that Jack Kirby was an absolute genius and dictating to his as-yet-unformed visual effects team that his primary goal was to adapt as much of the Kirby “look” as possible for his film.

Now, your friendly neighborhood TFG just happens to be a massive Jack Kirby fan and the one thing I hate above all others about the marvel cinematic boom of recent years is that Stan Lee, a no-talent hack whose uncle got him his job at Marvel, seems to be getting all the credit for “creating” the Marvel Universe, while The King Of Comics himself seems to warrant nary a mention. Thor, however, goes some way toward redressing the balance on this score — in addition to being a whole ton of fun, it’s the first honest-to-God Jack Kirby flick from top to bottom. Oh, sure, Stan “The Man” makes his usual pointless cameo, but everything from the dialogue to the epic scope of the story to the overall visual aesthetic of Asgard to the bold, bad-ass character portrayals is pure Kirby. in fact, you could argue that the look, feel, and even the story itself of Thor all bear a lot more resemblance to Kirby’s later magnum opus for DC, The Fourth World, than they do to anything he did for Marvel, but that’s another matter for another time, I suppose.

As such, given that he’s passed onto the land beyond and can theoretically now observe everything that’s happening, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find out what Jack himself had to say about the film, so with that in mind your host broke out his trusty Ouija board and kept firing questions into the ether until I found The King’s spirit. Once I started to get responses with lots of quotation marks and exclamation points, I knew I’d found him (and those who wish to be pedantic and point out that a Ouija board features neither exclamation points nor quotation marks can now duly fuck off).

And so, without further ado, I hereby present my dutifully transcribed notes on what the spirit of the late, great Jack Kirby himself had to say in regards to Kenneth Branagh’s film Thor

Greetings and salutations dear reader! You and I are about to embark on an epic journey together of “block-buster” proportions! For truly never has a saga such as this one unfolded on our local neighborhood movie theater screens!

Yes, friends, the “silver screen” is alive with magic and awe-inspiring, “earth-shattering” wonder! Never before has the much-maligned “comic-book industry” given rise to such a mighty spectacle of awe and cosmic wonder! The scale is unparalleled! The action “non-stop!” The splendor and majesty truly the stuff of legend!

I’ve worked before in the field of animated productions, but never have I seen my work so faithfully and expertly adapted in a “live-action” motion picture as director Kenneth Branagh has done here with “Thor!” I am awed,amazed,and humbled by his sheer dedication and faithfulness! Mr. Branagh, “The King” salutes you, sir!

As for the acting, well, truly never has such an “all-star” cast been assembled! Chris Hemsworth shines as the God of Thunder himself! Natalie Portman is enchaning as his love interest! Anthony Hopkins is majesty and wisdom incarnate as Odin! And the supporting cast of Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, rene Russo, Colm Feore, and especially Idris Elba as the stoic Heindall, reign supreme!!!!!!!!!

I am ecstatic at the sheer splendor and scale of this mighty, mythological epic and couldn’t have written a better script for this “motion-picture spectacular” myself! “Thor” is the perfect summer movie full of grand and mighty feats of destruction, devastation, love, and most of all, heroism! It smashes all that has come before and reaches spectacular new heights of soon-to-be-legendary grandeur! “Comic-book movies” have never looksed so good or seemed so real! You will be “blown away,” dear friends — and you’ve got the word of Jack Kirby on that!!!!!!!!!!

And with that, my Ouija board overloaded from sheer excitement and and fast letter-pointing (or whatever you call it), burst into flames, and the spirit of Jack left the room. And since I heartily agree with everything he had to say about Thor and couldn’t possibly put it any better than that myself, I won’t even try. See it now if you haven’t already, and see it again if you have.