Wish You Were Here: Rene Russo

I was originally going to call this new series “Where are they Now?” But that would’ve implied that the actor in question had disappeared entirely and that it was a sort of investigative journalism piece, which is not really my intent. Essentially the idea is to highlight an actor I enjoy watching who is not around nearly enough.

Now, when I thought of this piece I was reminded that my subject, Rene Russo, played Frigga in Thor, and reprised the role for the upcoming sequel. She popped into my mind as someone I hadn’t seen, and there truly was a long hiatus before that re-emergence.

Prior to joining the cinematic Marvel Universe she was last seen in 2005’s Yours, Mine and Ours. Now, that movie was just OK in my book. However, when you consider that it was the second remake of a 1960s comedy about a large family in short order (after 2003’s Cheaper By the Dozen) it was never likely to do much at the box office.

Major League (1989, Paramount)

Many of her headlining opportunities were in comedies that were less than ideal projects but she was a constant for me as I saw nearly all the films she appeared in during the 1990s.

Rene Russo was a unique case inasmuch as she debuted after the age of 30 following a modeling career. So she already defied the Hollywood odds stacked against her in that regard by being one of the most notable and in-demand leading ladies for a brief period. While it seems that some actresses have been able to transition from that 30s-40s range where the they are offered leads to the next phase where its mostly supporting work they can get, Rene hasn’t been afforded that opportunity, and she should be.

However, one thing I am hopeful of is that fantasy and/or superhero franchises do have a tendency to revamp and reinvigorate and actor’s career. Maggie Smith was well-known and well-regarded amongst those in her profession for years, but playing Professor McGonigall in the Harry Potter series got her a new audience and level of notoriety, thus opportunities. Much the same can be said for Ian McKellen playing Magneto and Gandalf. I hope that being in Thor, and potentially other Marvel ventures, opens up possibilities for Rene Russo becasue she should still be a presence.

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Hero Whipped: Why This Spider-Man Amazed Me

In this series of posts I tend to discuss comic book characters and my unique relationship with them since my fairly recent return to reading them again and I usually find a way to connect them back to movies somehow. However, since I decided that my posts may be a little different from hereon in, these posts may have a slightly different vibe to them.

Sure enough after that post The Amazing Spider-Man was one of the first things I saw. Now, in spite of my recent tendency to like superhero movies either a lot as the case is with say The Avengers and X-Men: First Class or somewhat as is the case with Thor or Green Lantern, the new Spider-Man hearkens me back to the original trilogy which were all released during my hiatus. Thus, this will be a heavily filmic post but it’s perhaps the most unique perspective I’ve yet had on a character.

It may be possible that I knew less about Spider-Man going into that first movie than I’ve known about almost any superhero before seeing their film. It was released at a time where I was typically attending films in a group so the selection process was fairly democratic. Going alone or with at least one other person, I could take it or leave it. To give you a sense of my lack of knowledge, after having seen it I was informed that in the books Peter created a web-shooter and it wasn’t a biological side-effect of the bite. So that frames it a bit.

However, I was a fairly blank slate. I didn’t have expectations I was just reacting to what I saw on the screen and what I saw there was something I didn’t care for much at all. In the post-film powwow I was the only dissenting opinion who chimed in “Well, I thought it really sucked.” I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it and the bad taste in my mouth kept me from seeing the other two.

I could identify easily enough with the elements of the story. Few and far between are the heroes whose archetypes that have a major variable. It was really a letdown in my eyes aesthetically, technically and viscerally. With regards to the viscera a lot of that boiled down to the casting of the leads. There is a certain alchemy in all of filmmaking but perhaps where it’s most present is in acting. Yes, there is a lot of technique and things that are good acting and bad acting just like in any aspect of filmmaking, however, an effective performer who doesn’t excite you in anyway is likely to be less engaging than a less technically skilled actor who is gripping, who has a presence. Tobey Maguire is not a bad actor and neither is Kirsten Dunst. I don’t find them interesting in any way, shape or form though. They bore me more often than not. It’s really a casting issue. Maguire is going to be seen in The Great Gatsby next. That’s great casting. He belongs in that film, here I didn’t care for it.

The casting and the actors get no help in the story department I remembered feeling it tepid and trite, nothing out of the ordinary, and getting back to the alchemy thing you have actors I felt were miscast, not particularly dynamic and then no chemistry too? Brilliant.

I was also not in the camp that ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the CG. Good effects work, truly good effects work is timeless. I doesn’t just stand up against contemporary expectations but stands the test of time too. I felt they were lacking in 2002, much less now. Whereas there are shots in Jurassic Park that are still astounding almost 20 years later.

It really seems in superhero cinema that much of it boils down to character, in the better ones performance, and spectacle. Very few are those films that will also make you legitimately, consistently, and even spontaneously, feel strong pangs of genuine emotion (Teaser: I got a lot of that in the new Batman and that’s the next in this series!).

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of watching any movie ever was the first time I saw Batman. You know the 1989 one, back when Tim Burton was Tim Burton.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” And thus, the crap was scared out of me and I was in love with that movie.

With Spider-Man you do have a basis for many emotions in the construction of his origin. As superhero films proliferate there will be more and more merit to the arguments about the viability of origin stories, however, in rebooting a series I have no problem with retelling. Similarity by itself is not cause enough for ridicule. Take the Psycho remake for instance (please?), if Van Sant had merely done the story over again: same place, same time, same characters, names; that probably would’ve been fine. However, he took it a step further into cinematic photocopying, which just felt flat.

I can stand a retelling, as I think I’ve stated before: I am fine with multiple versions of stories existing (and when I like the story I seek them out). I clearly wanted to be re-told this story based on my reaction to the first film. So, what was it in this new Spider-Man that worked for me? In short, practically everything.

However, as you may have guessed, it starts with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Just by looking at Andrew Garfield you may not imagine he’s the dynamic performer, but if you watch him you soon find out. I first saw him in The Red Riding Trilogy and I was a fan. There are quite a few things that perturbed me about The Social Network, but he wasn’t one of them, at all. Robbed of an Oscar nomination, is what he was.

Then there’s Emma Stone. I think everybody loves Emma Stone at this point. If you don’t you probably aren’t watching that many movies.

There’s a certain quietness and introspection to this film that allows the emotion to be wrenched out of it. I spoke of spectacle above, spectacle is very external. In many of these films there is rarely introspection. This film manages to do that, build these characters but also steadily build the intrigue. The characters arc, you see what makes them tick, you see and understand their decisions and I felt for them.

Now, the dynamic was changed in this film by bringing Gwen Stacy into the mix rather than Mary Jane Watson. Now, in my return to comics I haven’t delved into Spider-Man really. I’ve only really gotten to know and like him from his teaming up with The Fantastic Four after The Human Torch’s temporary demise, so Gwen was new to me and I think involving her is a great story decision that just makes this film that much better and resonant.

On a technical level, not only do scenes tend to be intensified by occurring at night but the filmmakers figured out that the web-swinging looks better then. Another interesting aesthetic note to me was that the camera was very much controlled, not an over-abundance of motion. The shots look good and composed and it hearken back to earlier superhero films, but are made with newer toys.

All those proclivities aside here are the two true litmus tests for superhero movies as I see them: One, do I want to see the inevitable sequel? Two, does the film make me want to seek out the character in print? The answer to both those questions is a a resounding hell yes. And that is why this Spider-Man amazed me.

Review- Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor (Paramount/Marvel)

To make it very clear I have in the past set down a list of rules regarding adaptations of any materials wherein I try to divorce myself entirely from the source material when gauging a movie. Meaning that I will not comment on adaptation choices or omissions. With Thor that task was much easier as my knowledge of both the legend and the Marvel rendition thereof is severely limited so I came into the film with a fairly clean slate.

Perhaps what is the most surprising part of the story to me is the fact that the film struck a very good balance of locations. It started for an extended period of time in Asgard establishing the characters and setting up Thor’s predicament and then after he’s exiled to earth switches back frequently. The advertising did make it seem as if it’d be very heavy on Earth-based action but I guess they just didn’t want you seeing too much of Asgard.

I think this balance serves the narrative quite well indeed. As Thor struggles to repent and reclaim his hammer at home the stakes keep on rising and events continue to conspire against him unbeknown to him. The pace is tempered so as the tale isn’t rushed and more meaning can be added to the spectacle rather than there just being a spectacle to behold and the audience “Oohs” and “Aahs” and walks out bloated by candy and soda gas.

You film buffs/comics fans out there might be aware, especially through the intimations made in prior films, that Marvel has been gearing up for an Avengers films. They have been doing so very methodically with slight dovetails in previous films. For the uninitiated where S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved in the story has been the prelude to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a presence in this film as they cordon off his hammer in a makeshift compound and detain Thor for a while but they’re only as much of an obstruction as they have to be they never become an encumbrance to the plot as a whole.

Having said that if you should see Thor be sure to plan your bathroom trip carefully because you’ll want to sit through the end credits for a teaser and a cameo appearance.

What might perhaps be overlooked is that in a tale such as Thor where you’re dealing with gods in another realm, the Earthlings who find him and those trying to detain him is that acting is pivotal. It’s pivotal both in the casting and the direction of the film. Which is why Kenneth Branagh, as counter-intuitive as it likely sounded to you at first, is the perfect director for this vehicle. This is a man who made his name as an actor and a director by interpreting Shakespeare if anyone can infuse some comedy but also lend this kind of tale the kind of gravitas it needs to succeed it’s him. Yes, it’s strange to see his name attached to something CG-heavy but there umpteen thousand people involved in that aspect he’s just making sure the tale is communicated and it is.

Speaking of the effects they were absolutely fantastic. The most challenging thing for a film is to create a wholly new world and this clan did that with ease. There is some pretty effective creature-work in here too, chilling stuff. The effects, of course, can only do so much it’s merely an interpretation of the production design which is also great. The sets and locations, where they need to be, are grandiose and majestic and just marvelous.

And now for my token paragraph on the 3D. I did see it in 3D. I debated not seeing it in 3D. I don’t think I would’ve liked it one iota less if I had gone the conventional route. If you want to save some money go for it. The colors, scope and vistas will be just as impressive.

I will readily admit my expectations were not very high for Thor. I’ve given you the positives as there were many. It wasn’t perfect but it was darn good and enjoyable and left me wanting more no matter how I come about it (be it comics or a sequel).

8/10

A Recap of Super Bowl Film Commercials

The Super Bowl this year, as it is many years was replete with ads that either advertise films or referenced them. Here’s a quick recap.

Captain America: The First Avenger

This is the first look I’ve really gotten at Captain America. At least in terms of a trailer, this seems like a rather good glimpse at at least some of the highlights of the origin of the character. Playing the tale as a period piece is also likely to work to this film’s benefit.

Fast Five

A continuation of The Fast and the Furious series. This installment takes place in Rio de Janeiro, there will be a Brazilian theme. What is most humorous about this one is that our heroes will drive through favelas and mess up hardened criminals and likely walk out unscathed. Very realistic.

Super 8

This was, hands down, the best trailer of the night. Oddly enough, esteemed publications like The Hollywood Gossip ran a headline which reads “Super 8 Movie Trailer: What the… ?!?” Now granted the article does admit it’s somewhat excited for the release but why complain about being confused. Super 8 first released an even more arcane teaser months ago and now about four months prior to its release we see a little more. This is how trailers used to work. You see just enough of a film to be intrigued into watching it, instead now sometimes you feel like you watched a whole movie. I finish seeing many and say to myself “That movie sucked.” because I feel like I saw the whole thing. This gives us just enough to want more and I’m even more amped for it than I was before. Bring it on Abrams and Spielberg.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Another example of why less is more. The original trailer while it was a little annoying when you found out what it was for was a little more mysterious.Now you see more than before and it gets silly from the get go and that’s just annoying.

Thor

While this ad made me giggle because I randomly thought of re-writing the song “War” and inserting “Thor,” it is decent. Not nearly as effective as the theatrical trailer as this one shows some possible chinks in the armor but not bad.

Rango

This is literally a film that has been overexposed and again reiterates the brilliance of the Super 8 strategy. I have been seeing trailers and commercials for this for so long I am fatigued of it and the worst part is the concept was only borderline in my estimation to begin with.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Nothing could be less appealing to me than another Pirates film considering that they have fallen off precipitously and I literally fell asleep during the last one, which was fine by me save for the fact that I needed to be woken up because I was snoring. This ad actually presents the film in a better light than does the full-length trailer.

Cowboys & Aliens

This is the kind of film most people already have an opinion on based on the concept. You either think the combination of two disparate entities such as these is ridiculous or inspired. The fact that the director of this film is also responsible for Elf, Zathura, and Iron Man won’t sway you. Aside from the much hyped ‘seeing more of the alien craft’ not much to be gleaned here or to change one’s mind.

Limitless

Not much to see here. a condensed version of the trailer. The concept has potential but it seems like it gets pushed to extremes. Interesting to note that it’s one of the few films coming out in fairly short order that shelled out the big bucks for a Super Bowl ad. It will be interesting to see what it does.

Rio

It’s a short 0:15 spot but even here you get to see some of the unfortunate aspects of the film: Hispanic actors subbing in as Brazilian and inaccuracies of beach life in Brazil such as the overly-large bikini cuts. While there is some promise in the concept of a film about the birds of Brazil it seems like it might not quite hit in this rendition.

Now some websites are mentioning The Adjustment Bureau, Just Go With It, Priest and Battle: Los Angeles, the last one I saw pre-kick-off. Others I didn’t see in-game. Maybe I was on a health break but I only count kick-off to final whistle and those were the ones I counted. Did I miss them?

There were also a few ads inspired by or referencing films such as the Bud Light Product Placement ad, Budweiser Cowboy singing “Tiny Dancer” reminiscent of Almost Famous, Volkswagen Mini-Darth Vader and Hyundai Sonata a bit callously referencing silent films.

To see all the ads go here.

What was Your Favorite Film Commercial During the Super Bowl?
(polls)