Episode 117: 1971 Retrospective: McCabe & Mrs. Miller / Death in Venice / The Last Picture Show

“Comedy is the hardest thing to get right. I remember a joke we did in ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ that didn’t get a single laugh. So we moved the shot a foot-and-a-half to one side, and all of a sudden, the laugh was there. It drives you crazy; the balance is so delicate.”

Peter Bogdanovich, Director of The Last Picture Show

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On Episode 117 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Scenes from a Marriage & Titane. Then they look back 50 years to three 1971 Feature Films: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Death in Venice, and The Last Picture Show.

Streaming links for titles this episode

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Death in Venice and The Last Picture Show are currently available to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms.

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Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: The First Avenger

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Time to punch some Nazis!

75/100

Captain America has recently come under fire for a new comic from Ta-Nehisi Coates featuring the star-spangled man with a plan that criticizes the American Dream, with superhero actors Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo accusing Marvel of politicizing Captain America. (This also comes after the villainous Red Skull was depicted with similarities to Jordan Peterson.) Yet, no matter where you stand on the controversies that have followed the Cap comics, from his conception Captain America has been a political construct: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap and had him punching Nazis in the face even before America had entered World War II. Pointedly, Cap has always tried to stand for what America should be, not what it is or has been (except for that arc where a Cap imposter was a Nazi, which caused no drama whatsoever). 

In the MCU, the movies have had to refrain from anything other than sweeping statements like, “Nazis bad,” or “government surveillance bad,” as they cater to a larger audience than the comics, but the spirit of Steve Rogers’ comic origins are still visible enough throughout his cinematic tenure, starting with the pleasantly old-fashioned Captain America: The First Avenger. (It’s also a lot easier to avoid issues of overly aggressive American exceptionalism when your bad guys are literal Nazis.) 

Part of its winsome charm comes from the 1940s setting, making The First Avenger Marvel’s first period piece—though don’t conflate it with the high-falutin dramas that usually populate the genre; it’s still first and foremost a superhero movie. Director Joe Johnston had already balanced these genres in The Rocketeer, so he seemed a natural fit for this MCU entry, and proves himself more than up to the job of balancing the time period with superheroics. It’s all very Indiana Jones. (While Johnston would only direct this film, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely would become mainstays of the MCU.)

America has entered World War II, and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is raring to go fight the good fight but is hampered by his small frame (Leander Deeny acted as Evans’ body double for the first part of the movie, and the head grafting usually looks decent) and litany of health issues. His childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has already been drafted, and Steve’s frustration has grown to where he has begun to lie on his enlistment forms in an effort to somehow join up. His determination to help in any way he can attracts the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist helping the Allies’ war effort by providing them with a serum to create a super soldier. 

Steve gets whisked away to Camp Lehigh in New Jersey, where he meets the prickly colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the no-nonsense Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Marvel often casts unknowns in leading roles, or, if not unknowns, at least someone unexpected; in this case, Chris Evans was mostly known for romcoms and non-MCU Marvel’s Fantastic Four duds. To compensate for their lesser-known leads, the MCU will populate the roles around their heroes with big names: Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo in Thor, and, in The First Avenger, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanely Tucci.

These casting choices generally pay off, giving the audience someone new to fawn over while the veterans keep the performance quality high. Here, Tucci and Jones give some of the most memorable one-off Marvel performances; Erskine in particular, while only appearing in the first third of the movie, has stayed fresh in the minds of audiences: he is, after all, the one who lays down the ethos of Captain America: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

This isn’t to say that The First Avenger’s leading man falls short—not by any means. Chris Evans, in addition to being ridiculously good looking, is ridiculously charming; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, though he initially turned down the role. Evans’ Steve is someone we all want to root for, representing that ideal American gumption and gusto without any of the country’s baggage. Yet while it could be easy to paint Steve Rogers as a goody two-shoes, as someone with a stick up his ass who probably goes to church each Sunday and buttons up his shirt all the way, the character we are presented in the MCU, and the one we are shown by Evans, is much more interesting than that (though Joss Whedon will fall slightly into caricature in The Avengers, unfortunately): the first thing Steve does in The First Avenger is lie. He lies on an enlistment form to boost his chances of helping the war effort, so the lie isn’t a nefarious one, but Steve still consistently bends or outright breaks the rules to follow his own largely unfailing moral compass; he has never been one to simply follow orders and do things by the book. He’s smart, too, and not just some tail-wagging Golden Retriever. If not quite as complex as Tony Stark or Loki, Steve still—to quote a certain green ogre—has plenty of layers. Good is not dumb, nor is it boring.

While Steve fails to impress physically, he proves himself worthy of the super soldier serum when he jumps on a grenade (unaware that it’s a dummy) to absorb its explosion while everyone else runs away, convincing even Colonel Phillips that he can handle the responsibility of Erskine’s super soldier serum. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) arrives to assist, a mirror image of his son: smart, suave, self-important, though with less of the guilt and self-loathing. 

Steve Rogers then gets really, absurdly ripped. If Peggy has already been attracted to his innate goodness, this surely helps that attraction along. 

Unfortunately (though maybe fortunately, so America wouldn’t have a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed super soldiers…), any chance of recreating this effect is dashed when an agent of Hydra (Richard Armitage, who definitely should get brought back for a bigger MCU role), an offshoot of the Nazis, kills Erskine. Steve, instead of getting to sock Nazis in the jaw on the front lines, is then used as a tool of the government to get more war bonds; his tenure as the government’s dancing monkey gives us a great musical number and a chance to lampoon the government: they stifle the real spirit of America, instead packaging some propagandic patriotic prattle in song and dance and costumes. (Again, this “real spirit of America” is much easier to portray during World War II, with clear-cut bad guys. Later on, it gets a little bit more complicated.)

Only with Peggy’s encouragement does he break out and begin to actually do something with his power. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, have been up to no good, capturing Allied forces—including Bucky Barnes—as part of their nefarious work for Hydra, so Steve ditches his role as senator attaché and goes to save his comrades. 

Where Marvel typically tries to tone down some of its comic book origins in order to make the movies more palatable, Red Skull’s design is ripped straight from the comic pages in all its campy, pulpy glory. The preceding MCU movies have all tried to ground themselves even as their subject matter gets more and more outlandish, resulting in something like Thor, which fails to commit fully to its otherworldly premise. The First Avenger marks the first time that Marvel fully embraces its source material: it’s good vs. evil, superhuman vs. superhuman, good old American boy vs. Nazi with a red skull. It throws any pretension away and basks in its absurd comic book glory, a much better movie for it.

To even out the absurdity, we have the very real relationships between the characters. Steve’s close connections with Bucky and the Howling Commandos (Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier, and JJ Feild as James Falsworth aka the superhero Union Jack, though only a normal guy in the films) give him an anchor; his relationship with Bucky in particular will remain important in the MCU and spark the imaginations of thousands of Tumblr and Twitter users, though it’s not given quite enough heft here.

The real heart of the movie, however, is Steve’s relationship with Peggy. Despite only being developed for one film, this relationship has proved to be one of the strongest in the MCU (perhaps too strong, but more on that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame), and due to Hayley Atwell’s vibrant portrayal, Peggy received her own spinoff show, Agent Carter, and appears in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Avengers: Endgame, and two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy and Steve serve as the film’s beating heart, giving the ending a gut punch and real emotional heft that the MCU films have largely lacked so far. It’s a testament to the depth of these characters that they can carry such weight in a movie where the main villain looks like this.

Upon revisiting The First Avenger, it’s remarkable how well the film has aged; while Iron Man deserves props (or boos, depending on your view of the MCU as an entity) for kickstarting the MCU, it feels largely rote when compared against the slew of other films that come after. The First Avenger, on the other hand, has a unique setting, and while it still lays the foundation for future entries, the film is still largely self-contained. Reverberations from its events can be found all over the MCU, but it’s less concerned with setup for the future and more so with payoff for the now, making it a satisfying entry on its own. It can get a little too silly at times, but it’s always fun and upbeat, a reminder of what Captain America can look like without the 21st century cynicism he becomes riddled with in later entries. Looking back after ten years, this may hold up better than Iron Man—this is a spicy and hot take, I know—and certainly helped reset the trajectory of the MCU after some more lackluster entries, setting them on firm ground before they take a big risk with The Avengers.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Hey, it’s the Tesseract with an Infinity Stone inside. Wonder if that will be important later.
  • Hey, the Red Skull used aforementioned Infinity Stone and got sucked up into space. Wonder if he will show up later. (He will, but not as Hugo Weaving, who has been open about the pay disputes with Marvel that led to Ross Marquand appearing as Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.)
  • Hey, no more super soldier serum exists. Wonder if anyone will make knockoffs and that will be important later.
  • Before the Hydra base is blown up, Zola rescues some blueprints for what looks like a robot, a nod to his comic look; in Winter Soldier, they will adapt this so that Zola lives through a computer program as a head on a screen.
  • Boy, sure hope hiring Zola and other Hydra members to help the United States doesn’t bite anyone in the ass.
  • There’s a common saying that “the only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” That has now been whittled down to only Uncle Ben, as Bucky gets revived as the Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker, a fate that will befall our filmic Bucky as well (and Jason Todd is also alive now, coming back as the Red Hood in DC comics). No one knew at the time if The First Avenger would get a sequel or if it would even adapt the Winter Soldier arc, so they filmed two versions of Bucky’s fall: one where Sebastian Stan had a green screen sleeve on his arm, and one without. Though they ended up using the latter, Bucky will still appear sans an arm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Howard and the Howling Commandos show up in Agent Carter, and some Howling Commandos show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Peggy. Will I be able to bring up S.H.I.E.L.D. in every retrospective? Stay tuned!
  • Kenneth Choi, who played Howling Commando Jim Morita, shows up in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Mortia’s grandson.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Dr. Erskine and Steve have a chat before the procedure, producing that classic MCU line: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The First Avenger (I welcome your Twitter arguments), 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: The First Avenger Trailer

Captain America: The First Avenger is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. We start at the very beginning (of release order, that is). 

Update, July 15, 2021: Upon reflection, and upon watching Captain America: The First Avenger, I had amended my initial score of 80 to become a 75/100; I still had my nostalgia-tinted glasses on when rating this. Iron Man holds up well, but not overly so.

80/100

“I am inevitable.”

These words, spoken by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, seem as if they could easily be applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole; from our viewpoint now, where Marvel has saturated nearly every corner of our lives, it can be easy to think that the MCU was a given, and that its rise was just waiting to happen, but that would be disingenuous. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios pulled off a miracle, and they kept doing so until they finally climbed to the top of the media landscape—and then they did it again with Endgame, creating a (largely) satisfying end to a 22-film saga that somehow managed to balance its ridiculous multitude of characters. Of course, your mileage may vary on how much good you think these miracles do, and how good they actually are, but inevitable? Hardly.

And it all started with 2008’s Iron Man.

Having slowly clawed its way back after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel was still on unsteady ground in the aughts, and had sold off many of its biggest characters to other film studios: Spider-Man belonged to Sony, the X-Men and Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and the X-Men trilogy performed like gangbusters, but Marvel Studios itself made little from these films, the bulk of the profits instead going to Sony or Fox.

Their solution? Take out a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch and hire an independent director best known for the cult hit Swingers to make a largely-improvised movie around a C-list superhero played by an actor widely regarded as damaged goods. It hardly seems foolproof, and indeed, it wasn’t.

Yet against the odds, Iron Man worked, and it worked well, laying the blueprint for future MCU entries with its blend of action, humor, and heart (though Mamma Mia ended up outgrossing it that year). Much of its success rested upon the shoulders of Robert Downey Jr., who came roaring back to stardom with a pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, who would become the linchpin for the budding MCU. Tony would go on to undergo one of the most dynamic character arcs in the MCU, and it all starts here.

The first third of the movie could almost function as a standalone: Tony Stark, drinking and flirting his way through life, gets captured in Afghanistan after showing the US Army Stark Industry’s latest weapon design. Tony learns that his weapons have been being used for nefarious purposes by the terrorist group that captured him, dubbed the Ten Rings. (No one has ever accused Marvel of too much nuance.) The Ten Rings asks that Tony make a new weapon for them; Tony and fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) pretend to do so while secretly making a suit that will allow them to escape. From there, and after Yinsen’s inevitable death, Tony sets out to make things right and disarm his business, our perfect post-9/11 superhero out to single-handedly stop the War on Terror. (Iron Man is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing the military-industrial complex, but we’ll table the discussion about Marvel’s relationship to the military for later.)

It is hard to overstate how much Downey owns Tony Stark. Here is a superhero who can’t shoot webs, who doesn’t have adamantium claws, who isn’t a nigh-undefeatable alien; hell, he doesn’t even have a six pack. He is just a man in a can, skating by on his wits (and his money, of course), by turns charming and infuriating, his every action streaked by a sense of desperation that pushes him to nearly a suicidal obsession with righting his wrongs and protecting those he initially failed. It’s a lot to juggle, but Downey does it with such ease that it’s hard to believe the studio was against his casting at first.

Director and fellow co-star Jon Favreau surrounds Downey with a talented cast of players, most notably Jeff Bridges as Obadaih Stane and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. While much has been said over Marvel’s forgettable villains, Bridges makes Obadaih by turns genial and menacing, leaving an impression despite the rather unremarkable third act that largely devolves into men in metal suits punching each other. But Obadaih is still fun, chomping on his cigar and yelling at this subordinates; he doesn’t want to eliminate half the population or rule over the entire galaxy, he is just a greedy corporate crony willing to gloss over human loss for a bit of money and power, and his existence serves to remind Tony of what he can never become. (Again, this is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing corporate greed and capitalism run amok. But it’s fun to watch.)

Much has also been said over Marvel’s forgettable romances, though there are a few exceptions, Tony and Pepper being foremost among them. This is due in large part to Favreau’s willingness to wait a couple films before throwing them together, and also because of Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.’s great chemistry. Even if you don’t buy into Goop, it’s hard to deny the charm she displays in the film. Pepper herself, of course, is a great character, and she will become increasingly important in these films.

Terrence Howard is there too, obviously, though the character of Rhodey has become Don Cheadle’s so much so that the original Rhodey feels like a placeholder (the rumor goes that Howard left over a pay dispute, having gotten more money than Robert Downey Jr. for the first Iron Man and getting upset when that trend was reversed for Iron Man 2). Still, though Howard may believe that 1×1=2, he makes a good foil to Downey, his Rhodey a bit less responsible than Cheadle’s and a bit friendlier.

Iron Man, in retrospect, does not stand out as the most daring or inventive Marvel film, though that’s easy to say when comparing it against the 20+ films that have come out since. (It does, however, have the MCU’s steamiest scene: some dry humping that lasts about thirty seconds. It seems that Paramount was a more forgiving distributor than Disney would become in 2009.) But let’s not forget that while critics might complain about the now-staid nature of the MCU, it was founded on several enormous gambles, not the least of which includes Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury: with the words “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” the cinematic door suddenly burst wide open in a way it never had before. This was not just going to be a standalone movie, or part of a trilogy centered around one character; as Fury puts it, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Ah, but that’s for another day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The Avenger Initiative, obviously, leads to the formation of the Avengers later down the line.
  • Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division become more and more important, most especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and, of course, the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., neglected by Marvel at large but eking out its own bizarre, fun existence).
  • Rhodey says, “Next time, baby” while looking at an Iron Man suit. In Iron Man 2, he becomes Iron Patriot. Wow. Crazy!
  • The Ten Rings will appear in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will no doubt retrofit Tony’s backstory a little bit.
  • Yinsen mentions meeting Tony at a party several years ago, though Tony—drunk at the time of the party—cannot recollect this. In Iron Man 3, Yinsen and Tony will appear via flashback at this aforementioned party.
  • The guy to whom Obadaih yells, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!” pops up in Spider-Man: Far From Home
  • Who could have guessed that this voiceover gig for Paul Bettany as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. would eventually result in his own TV show with Elizabeth Olsen?

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Pepper switching out Tony’s arc reactors. Funny and then sweet (“I don’t have anyone but you”). I can’t help it, I’m a schmuck.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man

Iron Man Trailer

Iron Man is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

Sources: Slate, Digital Spy, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Written by Michael Clawson

40/100

None of these characters elicited much feeling in me, nor did the atonal direction, which deprives the film of any noteworthy sense of anxiety, apprehension, or wry black humor that might have otherwise seeped outward from the performances. At the outset I was quite intrigued by Goddard’s willingness to move slowly, letting most of the first scene play out in a prolonged single take, but rhythmically the movie proceeds to be as monotonous as Darlene’s metronome. 

As played by Cynthia Erivo, Darlene did draw me in, as did Emily, Dakota Johnson’s character. Darlene’s singing voice is an emotional force, but it doesn’t register as deeply as it should because Goddard’s framing is so uninspired. Similarly, Johnson imbues every look at her character’s sister with believable affection and concern, but the script gives her little more than that to do; an attempt to complicate her character is made through hints at an abusive upbringing, but I would have preferred Johnson herself been given the opportunity to express the implications of that trauma. Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) is the film’s boldest attempt to simultaneously evoke dread and droll amusement, but I found myself neither amused nor uneasy in his presence. 

My excitement peaked at the sight of Xavier Dolan, who sadly was gone in no time. I could hardly even pay attention to what he was saying because I was too busy thinking about how The Death and Life of John F. Donovan just needs to come out already.