Posts Tagged ‘tilda swinton’

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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I’ll say this much — Marvel Studios’ latest mega-blockbuster, Doctor Strange, certainly is an amazing feast for the eyes. From the amazing opening fight sequence to the trippy other-dimensional mystical mindscapes peppered throughout the film, director Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote the script along with John Spaihts and the erudite-sounding C. Robert Cargill) pulls out all the stops to “wow” you and succeeds in his goal admirably. In fact, if there’s ever been a flick that you need to see in 3-DD, Imax, and all that shit, it’s this one.

Here’s the rub, though : if you’ve seen all, some, or even just one of Marvel’s other cinematic products, then you really don’t “need” to see this thing at all.

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By all rights, of course, this movie (which only came out two weeks ago, but I’m slapping my “Late To The Party” header on it anyway since most people see these on opening weekend and I didn’t get a chance to catch it until last night) sounded like it might represent the best chance for the so-called MCU to break from its well-established (and, admittedly, quite financially successful) mold : the character of Stephen Strange himself, a semi-tragic figure brought low by his own hubris when the wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon’s reckless driving leads to a car accident that renders his hands useless and sets him off on a quest to heal himself by mystical means, is arguably the purest distillation of the type of “morality play” his creator, Steve Ditko (sorry, Stan, I don’t care what the studio bosses say, you don’t get any credit for this one from me) excelled at during his 1960s Marvel period, and his signature psychedelic visual style is well-represented in the work of Derrickson’s CGI crew, but there’s definitely quite a bit lost in the translation from newsprint to celluloid here. I’ll grant you that this film isn’t nearly the glorified paean to war and militarism that the Avengers and Captain America flicks are, but in just about every other respect it follows the worn and tired formula of its stablemates downright slavishly : morally and ethically dubious protagonist (in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange) goes through a long-form origin story that results in him becoming a marginally better person after attaining super-powers at the feet of a more experienced master (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One);  he accrues a comic-relief sidekick (Benedict Wong’s — well, Wong), as well as one who might be a potential future rival (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo), along the way; principal bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) is a former pupil of aforementioned master gone rogue; main bad guy (Dormammu) is a computer-generated special effect; nominal love interest (Amy McAdams’ Christine Palmer) is essentially treated like a doormat but sticks by her guy anyway; you know the drill. In fact, you know it by heart at this point.

All of which means that a darn fine cast is wasted on this lifeless, assembly-line drivel (hell, you can even set your watch by the intervals between jokes — which largely fall flat this time out — in these things). Cumberbatch essentially plays Strange as Tony Stark in a magic red cloak;  Ejiofor buries his not-inconsiderable talents under a mask of dour, one-dimensional earnestness; McAdams suffers through her lines as surely as her character suffers through life as a plot device for her male counterpart; Swinton (whose casting was controversial among stodgy and conservative comics fans due to the fact that the “real” Ancient One is both Asian and male) shows some heart but the damn thing is that her role would be better served if she were more distant and blase a la David Carridine; Mikkelsen seems like a low-rent stand-in for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; yadda, yadda, etc., etc.

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In many ways, in fact, the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios has never been made more plain than it is here — after all, if they can take a fundamentally different premise than that which we see in their other films and still turn it into big-budget, dime-a-dozen, interchangeable cinematic fare, then it becomes depressingly clear that not only are they not interested in trying anything fundamentally different, they more than likely simply don’t even know how to at this point.

Not that audiences seem to care, mind you. “More of the same” still sells, and unless and until one of these things tanks at the box office, nothing’s gonna change, and the “Big-Budget-TV-Movie” ethos that permeates the MCU will hold firm. When it comes to the bottom line, that makes plenty of sense — but sooner or later familiarity breeds contempt, and when the bottom finally falls out on the super-hero craze, I predict it’s gonna fall out hard. As in, end-of-disco hard. People aren’t just gonna stop seeing this stuff, they’re gonna be too embarrassed to admit they ever even liked it. And when that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Marvel will have only themselves to blame. They crank out enough films to be able to do something at least a little bit adventurous and “outside the box” once in awhile. They can afford to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. But they don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a whole lot less lonely than I used to be when it comes to griping about the utter sameness of their films. The chorus of groaners is still small, true, but it’s getting louder. And larger. And sooner or later, the powers that be might want to pay attention.

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They’d better start paying attention to the wretched politics of their films, as well. Women are props consigned to do little beyond making the men around them more caring and more human. Racial and ethnic minorities are consigned to “second-fiddle” roles. Gays and lesbians simply don’t exist. Might always makes right. And, perhaps most troublesome in the “Age Of Trump,” rich people — even the most noxious, self-centered, asinine, egomaniacal ones — are worthy of being granted super-powers and become better people once they attain those powers. Why they’re not called to the carpet more often for these clear, present, and nauseating themes remains a mystery to me, but whenever I bitch about ’em, the most common whitewashing excuse I hear from folks — even he most purportedly “liberal” viewers — is that I’m “overthinking” things. Well, I call bullshit on that. Tony Stark — and now Stephen Strange — have gone a long way toward normalizing this idea that overtly asshole-ish, obscenely wealthy narcissists can be heroes, and look where that’s gotten us.

Am I blaming Marvel, then, for the rise of our Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief? No (although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump donor and supporter), but in much the same way that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (whose author, William Peter Blatty, was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam) preceded the ludicrous “Satanic Panic” that followed in their wake about a decade later, and the spate of ‘Nam flicks in the 1980s that were, at least on a surface level, critical of that war helped numb audiences to the notion of endless, un-winnable conflicts that would start up again in earnest with “Gulf War I” in 1990 and continue, on and off, for the next three decades, these flicks do their part to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist that makes certain once-unpalatable notions in the real world very palatable indeed.  In that respect, then, Marvel movies may be graduating from being simply dull and predictable to being downright dangerous. I hope, of course, that this is just pure batshit paranoia on my part — I fear, however, that it’s anything but.

 

Something awful has happened, but we don’t know what it is — that’s the basic premise behind director Lynne Ramsay’s latest effort, the much-lauded psychological thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin, a move that throws us in right at the deep end and never lets us up for air.

Confusion reigns from the outset, as we see a woman wrapped in the throes of some sort of ecstatic, celebratory feast that apparently involves a huge throng of revelers and lots and lots of  stomped and smashed tomatoes. Or something. Truth be told, we’re never fully informed of exactly what is transpiring in this beautifully shot opening sequence, but we do come to learn that the woman the camera eventually fixes on is one Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a hugely successful travel writer and editor who apparently finds herself involved in these kid of unorthodox situations pretty frequently.

Or, should that be, found herself involved in these kind of unorthodox situations pretty frequently, because in the very next scene we see Eva alone in a dilapidated house, waking up in a cold sweat to find that someone has thrown red paint all over her front porch and her car. There’s obviously quite a convoluted line that leads from situation A to situation B here, and the unraveling of that thread forms the film’s central narrative premise, with the remainder of the movie alternating between scenes involving the present-day Eva, quite obviously a broken, spent shell of a woman who punches the clock at a dingy storefront travel agency by day while studiously avoiding so much as even eye contact with any of her neighbors or fellow townsfolk during her off-hours, and the Eva of the past, a vivacious, globetrotting free-spirit who’s slowly, inexorably drawn earthward due to a vicious, self-defeating-spiral of a relationship with her eldest child, Kevin.

To be fair, Kevin’s not an easy child to raise from the get-go, as he cries constantly in Eva’s presence, to the point where she stands near jack hammers just to drown out the sound of his bawling. As he grows into toddler-hood, he proves increasingly uncooperative with her, while forming an almost-instantly-manipulative relationship with his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), who alternates between thinking the sun rises and sets on his little boy and willfully ignoring his obvious behavioral problems (like wearing a diaper until near-adolescence) in the hope that they’ll simply go away. As the more youthful version of Kevin, played with disarming complexity given his years by Jasper Newell, gives way to a more transparently antisocial, perhaps even downright evil Kevin, played after the onset of puberty by Ezra Miller with a mixture of pure malevolence and the devious charm of the truly psychotic, we see his relationship with his mother grow more and more unhinged — yet also, perhaps conversely and perhaps not, more intertwined, to the point where both of them seem to need the conflict between them in order to survive, even though they both suspect only one of them is going to make it out alive since it’s clear that Kevin’s only goal in life has gradually become bringing  Eva’s entire world crashing down on her.

Obviously, at some point he succeeds, as Swinton’s deservedly-ballyhooed, multifaceted performance shows. The Eva we see now isn’t even a shadow of the Eva we see in flashback, as a shadow bears at least some resemblance to the person casting it. And while nagging questions dog at the back of our minds throughout — most notably where are Kevin’s younger sister and father in this present-day scenario — it’s Swinton’s turn as Eva, in both the then and the now, that keeps us glued to the screen. From her physical mannerisms to her speech patterns to her social interactions, everything we see in the present day is a 180 degree turn from the way she acts, talks, even thinks in the film’s past-tense scenarios. Rarely does an actor display so much range in the space of a single film, and Swinton does so with an unforced naturalism that both grounds the movie in her character’s obviously tragic arc and increases its almost oppressive sense of mystery and foreboding as events play out and we find ourselves more and more drawn into needing to know just how the hell this amazingly brutal transformation could have occurred.

While I’m sworn to secrecy when it comes to giving away the final act that Kevin commits that absolutely ruins his mother’s life (just as he’d planned), I will say this — it’s both amazingly, audaciously vicious, and entirely believable. We’ve seen it play out on the evening news too many times to count by this point, but realizing, as he’s doing it, that his ultimate intended victim is not the people he’s doing it to but rather his own mother makes it all the more unconscionable, as the point is driven home that he views more or less the entire rest of the world as pawns in his unending power struggle with her, one that he’s determined to “win” at all costs.

It goes without saying that We Need To Talk About Kevin is anything but an easy film to watch. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the term, one portrayed in such detailed, intimate terms that we’re not even given the option of looking away. It raises the eternally uncomfortable question of nature vs. nurture — Kevin’s a “problem child” right from the start but Eva isn’t shy about letting him know that she’d rather be galavanting around the globe than be stuck at home with him — and thrusts it right into the forefront. And of course, in the end, there are only victims,  no real survivors. Like the best dramatic fiction, it forces us to confront the darker corners of the human condition and examine how we would react given the same set of circumstances in our own lives. There are a lot of Kevins out there in the world, and whether  of them ourselves. or we actively help create them, or we merely aid and abet them by not caring what’s happening in millions of families across the country and around the planet, to one degree or another we’re all guilty. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and Lynne Ramsay isn’t about to let any of us off the hook —nor give us easy answers to the difficult, but necessary, questions her film raises.

I’m reminded of a classic line from Penelope Spheeris’ punk-rock coming-of-age opus Suburbia — “everybody knows families don’t work.” We Need To Talk About Kevin certainly proves that statement correct — but they’re also all we’ve got. Go rest easy now, if you can.