We’re into the land of diminishing returns with Marvel, it seems, with the novelty of a shared cinematic universe having worn off and the big storyline everything was building to for ten years now over. Of course, another big event is sure to be on its way in another decade, but will we care by then?
Not if Thor: Love and Thunder is anything to go by. Between the thinning appeal of Taika Waititi’s self-satisfied comedy and the uninvolving and lazy plot, characters, and imagery, it’s an unmemorable failure of Marvel’s action comedy formula. Admittedly, Christian Bale makes his Voldemort-esque villain, Gorr the God Butcher, more threatening than you might expect, given his simplicity and lack of screen time, and there’s some fairly charming comic business between Thor and his semi-sentient weaponry. Tough to recommend just for those, though.
A big one. The Marvel Cinematic Universe closes a chapter – kind of – with Endgame, a three-hour behemoth that concludes stories that have been told over 21 films in 11 years. It’s elegiac, both of its characters’ fates following the end of Infinity War, and of itself, offering a good deal of fan service to its vast, devoted audience, some members of which have grown up knowing nothing other than the MCU as the dominant mode of cinema. We take our time to discuss it in a two-part podcast.
The first part is, as usual, recorded upon our return from the cinema, the film still ringing in our ears. We saw it in a packed screening, the room filled with excited fans from whom the film elicited exactly the vocal and rich emotional responses that bring such occasions to life. Though three hours is a demanding duration by anyone’s standards, and could certainly be seen to speak to a certain self-importance, the film makes very good use of its time, particularly in the opening hour, in which we are given copious time to understand the ways in which the world has changed following Thanos’ fatal snap, and the remaining Avengers’ responses to it all. We discuss whether the Russo brothers, the film’s directors, offer much by way of creative visuals – to Mike, the film’s visual core is simply about scale, while José remarks that some of the compositions appealingly evoke comic book panels. Mike brings up the way the MCU overall has to some degree always been about competition between Iron Man and Captain America, and how Endgame concludes that both in the story and metatextually, giving Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans respectively their own emotional moments.
The second half, recorded three days later, largely builds on a roundtable article in the New York Times, in which five of their pop culture writers discuss both Endgame itself and the MCU’s impact on cinema culture over the last decade. It brings up a number of interesting subjects, particularly those that consider the MCU as a cinematic phenomenon rather than the specific content of the stories themselves.
So. It’s a big film and a big podcast to go with it. We found it worthwhile to take our time to think over some of the cultural issues the MCU raises, and as for arguing about this character or that scene, well, sometimes it’s fun to indulge.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
We pick at flaw after flaw in a film we sincerely enjoyed! Drew Goddard’s post-noir, post-Tarantino, post-Hitchcock thriller is an oddball, a delightfully playful collection of stories about secrets and regrets and temptations and damage. A fabulous ensemble cast is split up and paired off in all sorts of ways, histories are exposed, deception is currency, violence is brutal and shocking. And it all happens on one rainy night in a broken old motel in 1969.
We have few issues with Goddard’s screenplay, which, but for the exception of one or two characters who we reckon could have been given a little more flesh, is creative, clever, witty, and energetic. But as a director, we find him lacking – as José phrases it, he has no instinct for cinema. It’s a significant problem in a film that’s building upon and pastiching entire genres and movements of cinema.
We go back and forth on some of the performances, though they’re primarily good, and Jeff Bridges and Lewis Pullman in particular are just perfect. Mike appreciates that the film understands when to pull the rug out from under you and when not to. We agree that it’s destined to become a cult success, the type of film you want to know if your friends have seen. And we like trifle.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The first part of Marvel’s ending to the unendable story wallops us with two and a half hours of punching and planets. Mike is even more gullible than usual. Jose stays cynical and rightly so. The film leads to discussions on whether we can actually find themes in it, the leaps of faith necessary to buy into it, the way in which we can’t help but buy into the story logic in the way we talk about it, and the nature of even trying to talk about corporate assets this enormous. It all gets quite meta. Jose mentions the state of modern America again. We bring up Call Me by Your Name somehow.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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Ghostbusters does have some laughs. But it’s so bad it’s exhausting to watch: everything seems out of kilter, mis-timed, the gags obvious and over-elaborately set up; and one just looks at one’s watch, thinks of leaving, but the charismatic performers and the occasional laughs keep one hoping. It’s the worst-directed comedy I can think of. The movie relies for its energy on the editing, terrible in a comedy. And one just ends up tired and with a headache. Leslie Jones and Chris Hemsworth were standouts; and I do love Melissa McCarthy. Even in this.
The twitterstorm over the reboot has been ridiculous. I saw the original when it came out and liked it. It was a fun summer film with a truly great comic performance from Bill Murray – wry, slobby in appearance, cutting in attitude, smartly knowing and totally endearing. He’s what was great. As a film, the original Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984) has been fetishized beyond all comprehension.
The reply to the sexist reception of the reboot has been that a lot of women seem to like the film. Part of the reason has to be Melissa McCarthy. She’s got warm eyes, seems human in her gestures and responses, and has crack timing. She’s really the biggest female star of the moment, practically the only one to have a star persona so defined as to be deployed in high concept films. The only thing many of her films have going for them is her; it’s not as if she’s the weak element coasting on the success of the other aspects of her films. They’re not much to speak of and yet she turns them into hits: audiences like her.
But she’s not enough in Ghostbusters (and perhaps to the film’s credit and as validation of it’s feminist politics, she’s not the best thing about it either: everyone has their moment in this ensemble). I liked the buddy aspect of the film, and the interaction between the women. But some of the rah-rah sisterhood stuff felt really forced and the last shot of the four women hugging…well…Add to that that the whole supernatural aspect of the plot seems pointless, undramatic and uninspired and one isn’t left with much. On the other hand, and to be fair, one can’t deny that it creates a fair share of laughs; and to paraphrase Lubistsch, I wouldn’t sneeze at such laughs, especially in a comedy.
Thor: The Dark World is much better than Thor. Visually, it’s a fan-boy’s delight, with the comic-book world a dream cinematic rendering. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a believable world that is nonetheless not too far removed from the three-strip colour comic of adolescent memory. The CGI works beautifully for this type of superhero film as, even when its detectable, it only reinforces the ‘illustrated’ dimension of the comic-book world that is being created for us.
The look of the film, surely the most beautiful and imaginative production design of the year, exceeds expectations. Thor’s world is a wonderful intersection of Gothic Viking imagery, a knowable and iconic London, and that which its sci-fi/ fantasy setting makes permissible (super-powers, the aligning of dimensions, magic). One comes out of the film with an appreciation of the brilliance of its imagery: Odin’s throne-room, Frigga’s funeral, Loki’s prison, each is recognisably what one expects, yet better composed and executed than one dared imagine.
There are also fantastic set-pieces that do make one gawp: the initial battle sequence, Malekith’s entrance into Asgard, the aerial fight as Thor and Jane Foster try to escape it, the magnificent way Thor calls for his hammer in the final fight. I found all of this viscerally exciting and visually thrilling. But if the whole look of the film is spectacular, the actors who people that world and bring these characters to life are also deserving of praise.
Chris Hemsworth is clearly born to that part; with his hair, his colouring and his musculature, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the role. But then there’s also Tom Hiddlestone with his wonderfully theatrical performance of Loki, and the way Anthony Hopkins as Odin creates effects just by the way he enunciates the final consonants in key words; and Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable but also vocally superb as Malekeith, and the way Idris Elba’s face is used almost sculpturally to create a superb visually iconic myth of Heimdall — note how the yellow of his eyes is co-ordinated with his armour and helmet makes for very memorable close-ups — but one which also creates the illusion of three-dimensions. Aside from these, there’s also Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd for comic relief (which I found tired but which I attribute to my age as the younger audience seemed to lap it up) and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgaard. It’s an extraordinary all-star cast.
The particulars of the story are sometimes hard to follow and I’m not sure if the story is as tightly plotted as one would have wished. However, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much matter here. There other pleasures that more than compensated: the self-referential cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America, the jokey way the portals between dimensions is introduced, the appearance of Chris O’Dowd and other minor aspects of the film are delightful. But the main thing is how Thor: The Dark World looks true to the original yet newly striking, how the film moves beautifully and how it plays so well; and with some exciting action and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Whiners may quibble; but it’s one to see again, preferably on IMAX.
The film begins almost like a Bond film, Thunderball to be precise: race car driver James Hunt ( Chris Hemsworth) comes into the hospital after being thrashed by an aggrieved cuckold and, before the blood has been cleared from his face, he’s got his clothes off and he’s got the nurse begging him to do to her what landed him in the hospital in the first place. It’s a playful, cheeky scene where Hunt/Hemsworth, or more precisely that extraordinary body of his, is positioned by the camera as the nurse’s object of desire whilst the narrative itself positions Hunt/Hemsworth as subject and locus of audience identification, however aspirational.
Most of the film is set in the 1976 Formula One season and focuses on the competition between Hunt and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to win the Formula 1 World Championship. Hunt is handsome, charismatic, impulsive; catnip to women but a real man’s man. Hunt loves the romance of the race, of putting his life on the line purely for the glory and because the adrenaline cranks up his sex life and makes him feel alive.. Lauda is plain (he’s called ‘rat-face’ in the movie), a loner, careful, methodical. He’s in it because racing is what he sees himself being most successful at; he plays the odds but systematically; he’s warned not to follow Hunt in the sack as he’s told no one can compete but such warnings are wasted as Lauda is really more interested in a home life. The film also shows us that they have more in common than they think; not only their background or talent or the type of women they are attracted to, but the competitiveness and the way each spurs the other on.
In the film’s terms what’s at stake in the contest is symbolized by who will win it. Will it be business or will it be romance? Is it ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ or nuts, bolts and numbers? It’s a neck-and-neck race that does credit to each whilst underlining the necessary interconnection of both. Even the two very good central performances have a ying/yang dimension: Hemsworth’s star is the one that shines brightest but it is Brühl’s performance that earns our admiration and will undoubtedly get the honours.
The film has a wonderful, distinctive look: slightly grainy, over-saturated with some carefully composed images (some of people sitting on signs) and shots that are thrilling to see almost on their own (e.g. some shots filmed through the inside of a helmet with the visor being drilled on the outside and the actors eye occupying most of one side of the frame). I initially suspected that it was done that way so as to be able to mix actual footage from the original races into the narrative and, whilst I can’t vouch for that, the effect is to make us think that it could have been. The film evokes the rush, the speed, the fumes and the danger of that time where technological developments in the cars had dangerously begun to overtake the safety mechanisms of the track at the cost, sometimes mortal, of twenty percent of the drivers each year.
Rush is very glamorous. The clothes look wonderful both on the men and particularly on those sleek, long legged women that could have come out of a Roxy Music album from the period (the soundtrack features Jimmy Cliff, Bowie and many other treats). The clothes look different than what I remember people wearing but exactly as the magazines and movies of the period made us wish we could look like, which I suppose is always the gap between street clothes and high-end fashion or, perhaps more accurately, the gap between how we do in fact end up looking and the promise of how we could, in the best of all worlds and with the very best of budgets, possibly look; Alexandra Maria Lara and especially Olivia Cole fulfil anyone’s dreams and look sublime.
The film works both as a serious drama and also as a sexy action film. The race is a thrilling photo finish in which what’s at stake is not only the win but also a romantic ideal and a set of values. It is slightly marred by an overly sentimental ending. It wouldn’t be a Ron Howard film without at least a small dose of saccharine; but the rest of the film wouldn’t be as good without Ron Howard’s tremendous skill and guiding intelligence either. It’s the kind of movie that used to be made by the big studios, though they would have considered themselves lucky to produce one of this quality more than once a year. Now, according to the September 13th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a film that even Ron Howard had to make independently because the big studios wouldn’t touch a mid-budget spectacular chase movie that’s fundamentally character-driven. It’s their loss and, at least in this instance, our gain. Rush is a film to see and experience, and maybe even more than once.
It’s been mooted in the internet that American distributors don’t have high expectations for Rush because it’s about Formula 1 racing rather than NASCAR and because it’s about the rivalry between an Englishman and a German (the implicit assumption being that Americans have no interest in anything that doesn’t directly concern them); another view, mine, is that if they can’t drum up business for a sexy, glamorous movie featuring a hot young star (Chris Hemsworth) coming off a roll of hits (Thor, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, Cabin in the Woods); a movie that is choc-a-bloc with car chases as exciting as anything in Fast and Furious films, they should all be fired.
The story is what you’d expect but with maybe more of an accent on the magical. The film is visually dazzling, with dgi here used expressively to create a magical world, damply dark or sinister, or life-giving, unfolding whiteness. The scenes of the transformation of the forest, or indeed any transformation involving Charleze Therzon are astonishing. Therzon herself looks the part better than she acts it but gives a serviceable performance. Chris Hemsworth is rugged and gorgeous. Kristen Stewart has both a transparency and also a kind of awkwardness that is now an integral part of her star persona. She never seems at ease, is always awkward but somehow true. Here she’s astonishingly beautiful, a beauty made amazing because you initially don’t quite notice, it catches you by surprise in particular shots and then hits you as breathtaking. Girls will love her in armour at the end. There’s something that stops this film from quite working and yet I would like to see it again.
Directed by Rupert Sanders, a first time director.