The Avengers

The summer movie season has officially arrived, heralded proudly by the amazingly awesome film that is The Avengers.

Joss Whedon has a special place in my heart as one of the most under-appreciated directors in Hollywood. Although there’s some of his work that I could pass on, most of it is tolerable to a level equal of any other TV faire, or in several cases, some of the best work I’ve seen come out of Hollywood in years. His other work includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and my all-time favorites Firefly and Serenity. So when I heard that they were tapping Whedon to helm Marvel’s 5-year endeavor of bringing all their heroes into one unifying film, I was thrilled.  Whedon is a master at character-driven pieces, and with a strong potential for a film like The Avengers to become the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat visual effects buffet (where you know the food isn’t all that amazing, but there’s just so much variety and so much to try that you keep going back, even though you know you’ll feel awful for it later) that’s just what this film needed to keep it grounded.

To sum my thoughts up: this is the best experience I’ve had at the movies since seeing Serenity in 2005. Although I’m sure the film had its fair share of flaws, I was completely unaware of them because I was simply having too good of a time. It was filled with humor, action, and heart and even managed to bring me close to tears at one point. Never once did I consciously think about the 2.5 hour run time, which is an excellent sign.

For those that aren’t familiar with The Avengers, here’s a brief recap. A top secret government organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., under the guidance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is given the task of protecting the world from threats beyond the capabilities of normal men. In preparing for this task, they recruit the world’s greatest heroes (each of which joins the group from a pre-existing stand-alone film) – Iron Man, a.k.a Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk, a.k.a. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). They’re also joined by secondary characters Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson). Together, this team must defeat Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of Thor, as he attempts to invade earth with an alien army and rule over mankind.  Sound action-packed? It is!

They even manage to represent all of the primary colors in their outfit choices!

Here’s where I think Whedon succeeded the most. Each of these characters is amazing in and of themselves. You have Captain America -a super solider, the perfect specimen of man, Iron Man – a genius, billionaire playboy with a high tech suit of armor, Thor – a demi-god from another realm, and the Hulk – a scientist who becomes an unstoppable wrecking ball when he gets angry — and none of them get along. Ultimately, despite all their super-human abilities, they all suffer from such basic human flaws, and THIS is the genius of Whedon (who not only directed, but rewrote the script). Whedon gives us a reason for all these people to not only come together, but work past their differences for the greater good.

The unstoppable cloud from Green Lantern, which killed the strongest Green Lantern, and fought off droves of the galaxies best defenders... but was then defeated by Ryan Reynolds because he wanted it bad enough.

The film also succeeds in finding a villain which is not too easily defeated, but also not overwhelmingly powerful and still somehow easily defeated to conveniently wrap up the storyline (see Green Lantern). This is no small feat seeing as how the combined power of the Avengers would decimate just about any opponent.

On an acting level, Downey Jr. delivers that classic wit and charm we’ve all come to love from the Iron Man films, Evans plays the out-of-his-element good soul that won us over in Captain America: The First Avenger, and Hemsworth does a great job at helping the audience take the somewhat out-of-place absurdity of a demi-god seriously.

Finally a Hulk we can cheer for, as he smashes his way into our hearts with pure, unbridled anger.

But perhaps the most noteworthy performance is that of Ruffalo, who replaced Edward Norton as Bruce Banner after the studio and Norton had a bit of a disagreement following The Incredible Hulk movie. Part of it is the writing, part of it is the effects team, but FINALLY we get to see the Hulk as we’ve always wanted to see him. Not part of some artsy “soul-behind-those-eyes” interpretation by Ang Lee, but as a man with some control over the beast, that ultimately enjoys smashing things. It’s refreshing, and at times, quite hilarious. (Two specific moments come to mind, but I won’t spoil them.)

Agent Coulson was apparently brought on board for his super human adorableness.

If I had to choose a specific favorite character of the film, I actually think I’d choose Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. Coulson has appeared in several of the other Marvel films, acting as a sort of character glue to bring all of the films and their characters together.  His role is much more pivotal in this film than in the others. He almost becomes a representative of the audience – an everyman amongst super-humans, with many of the same reactions we ourselves would have. I won’t spoil anything else, just expect good things from Gregg’s performance.

Again, this film was so wonderfully executed, and although it probably won’t be an Oscar contender outside of the technical categories, it is a great little piece of escapism at the movies, and an enjoyable thrill ride. Marvel did it right with their plan to establish a universe for their films to co-exist in, and with Iron Man 3 starting production this summer, Thor 2 in the fall, Captain America 2 next winter, and The Avengers 2 after that, we can expect great things in the coming years. Now if only they can work out a deal with Sony to get Spiderman in the next Avengers film. Time will tell!

My opinion, well worth the trip to the theatre to see this film as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen. Although IMAX and 3D are not necessary. (I saw it in 2D and loved it.) And be sure to stay until the end of the entire credits. Marvel sticks in their usual stinger about a minute in which sets up some element of the next film, but this time they also gave an added bonus at the very end.  In fact, the cast shot the scene immediately after the Hollywood premiere. (If you look closely you’ll notice that Evans had to wear a prosthetic piece on his face to hide the beard he’d grown out for another role.) This added bonus doesn’t really add anything pivotal, but it’s sure to leave you laughing at its pure, simple randomness.

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Rating: 4.6/5 (7 votes cast)


The Marvel universe continues its expanse as Thor plunders into theaters.  The god of thunder comes from Shakespearean-auteur Kenneth Branagh who blends dynamics of action and character to create one of the better superhero thrill rides this side of The Dark Knight.

Riding the lightning as the title character is Chris Hemsworth in his first major leading role, and I must say, like Downey of Iron Man, the lead actor makes the movie. Hemsworth owns the character, he owns the film, and he will surely own this franchise.  Balancing out the silliness of the plot and otherworldly English of proper, Branagh’s newfound star plays Thor, the son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins)—ruler of the Asgard realm.  About to be named heir to the throne during a planetary ceremony, the walls of Asgard are breached by enemies of another world.  Luckily the mighty fortress is protected, but Thor isn’t satisfied.  Egged on by his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor becomes impassioned with delivering the intruders a message and sends out with a group of warrior pals to meet his foes at their doorstep which ignites a war of the worlds.  Thor and his comrades are vastly outnumbered as King Odin comes to the rescue.  Aggravated with his son’s arrogance and recklessness, Odin strips Thor of his metaphysical abilities and casts him out to Earth along with his powerless weapon of choice—the mighty hammer.

Now stranded on Earth, the mighty warrior enters the lives of a team of physicists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), dodging SHIELD authorities in the process.  There’s a lot of hooey talk of portals and disturbances in the upper atmosphere as the studio is desperate to explain the existence of Thor from a scientific perspective—mainly to tie him in with the ‘Earth-bound’ avengers Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and others.  Once Jane accepts her discovery of a chiseled slab of man as a warrior god, Thor’s jealous younger brother no sooner sends enemies to Earth to erase the existence of his stranded sibling once and for all.

As a studio tentpole and comic-book adaptation, Thor is far better than anything we would’ve seen ten years ago.  Writers have been approaching this material with earnestness and passion, determined to deliver first-rate products.  Because of this, audiences have been spoiled with such impressive offerings as the first Iron Man, the new Batman films, Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2, that we sort of forget that these movies can’t all necessarily be A+ features.  Thor, however, is more in line with the latest trend of quality superhero films than other stink piles of recent memory (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Elektra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Special Effects and action can be hit-or-miss as far as first-rate techs go, but the sequences are consistently involving.  Thor’s world is particularly designed and detailed, giving us a sense of the character’s background and struggle.  The characters are particularly well-developed, especially those occupying Asgard.  The actors do their best to participate in a magnum opus of silliness, with straight faces and a sense of fun at the same time.  Thor only seems to come up short when much of the story centers on Asgard rather than forces that threaten our planet.  Once the god of thunder finds himself stranded on Earth, his human companions stir up comedy and human interest, but the movie begins to lull periodically.  That’s alright with me.  Branagh gives his film time to settle down and breathe without relentlessly retreating to attack mode.  Since the film is designed to lead straight into The Avengers a year from now, I’m certain Earth will finally see Thor protecting our vulnerable little world to great extent.

As Marvel continues to conjoin these franchises, I’m curious to see how Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk survive once the fellowship is broken after Avengers rakes in hundred of millions of dollars.  Iron Man 3 is already in the works, as is a sequel to Thor.  Luckily, Thor seems to have more story to tell as the character relationships have space to blossom, specifically between Jane and Thor.  The filmmakers took notes from the first Iron Man as Stark and Pepper slowly but surely evolved their relationship.  Romance and sparks only tease the audience throughout most of Thor‘s first outing, leaving us wanting more.  Hemsworth and Portman have plenty of chemistry, and that’s where Branagh succeeds in delivering a superhero film about likable and believable characters amidst an outrageous plot, dorky costumes, and oddball creatures.  Forget about the whirlwind of action and useless 3D conversion (yes, skip the 3D).  Marvel and Branagh have given us another sensational hero and a major star to fill his shoes.  Bring on another round.

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Rating: 3.8/5 (5 votes cast)

The Other Guys

I can’t remember the last time I sat through a major comedy featuring prominent stars without at least a few good laughs finding their way out.  To my complete surprise, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg have unsuccessfully lampooned the buddy-cop action flick with The Other Guys.  This latest Adam McKay–Will Ferrell collaboration hit with a thud, so much so I began questioning whether I even enjoy Ferrell as a comedian.

That simply can’t be the case.  He’s a gifted comic actor, and his performances in Elf, Anchorman, Zoolander, Wedding Crashers, Blades of Glory and other films have caused me side-splitting pains of laughter.  But lately with Semi-Pro, Step Brothers, Land of the Lost, and now The Other Guys (which is getting good reviews and making buckets of dough), I seem to be losing appreciation for the funnyman.  However, a likelier conclusion would be that he has simply been floundering in stink-pile projects.  Either way, The Other Guys happens to be an intriguing premise and allows Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg to trade zingers—an opportunity I was looking forward to immensely.  The script simply goes nowhere, and I didn’t care for any of the jokes.

Ferrell and Wahlberg play pencil-pushing cops Gamble and Hoitz, living in the shadows of destructive action-hero NYPD detectives (Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson) living out Bad Boys-style stunts and rescues on a daily basis.  One such chase has them leap off a high-rise building in an effort to catch the bad guys, and their self-proclaimed indestructibility causes them to forget that gravity will pull them to their deaths. With these two larger-than-life boneheads out of the way, Hoitz wants in on the action and away from his desk, dragging the hesitant Gamble along with him.  Gamble wants to play it safe, while Hoitz is looking for a big case.  The two find one unexpectedly, and become knee-deep in some extortion plot resulting in their inevitable suspension, allowing action-movie cliches to ensue (although it’s intended for laughs).

Sadly, I found zero fun here.  I can appreciate what McKay and Ferrell were trying to do, and I can see this potentially being a great comedy, but the jokes continuously backfired and fell flat.  Even Wahlberg, usually the hard-nosed action-star, failed to do much more than shout obnoxiously throughout (hilarious Mark, I know).  The plot was simply lacking, the dialogue wasn’t funny, and the mash-up of Ferrell and Wahlberg was in fact inspired, but went nowhere with the material.  I am amazed that the critically-reviled Cop Out from Kevin Smith seemed more enjoyable.  If Other Guys has a redeeming quality, it is Michael Keaton throwing out lyrics from TLC hits and doubling as Police Captain and Manager of Bed Bath & Beyond.  Otherwise, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell continue down a slippery slope.  Step Brothers I hated, and Other Guys almost as much, just not in the same way.  Where Step Brothers was so idiotic and loud, Other Guys is simply tired and lazy.

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Rating: 2.5/5 (2 votes cast)

Iron Man 2 (Take-Two)

Guess what? Summer begins early, as it does with the year’s major blockbuster movies.  Robert Downey, Jr. is back in action shooting to thrill, and let me just say, “Iron Man 2,” while not coming out blazing, still knocks last year’s hideous kick-start “Wolverine” out of the park.

Director Jon Favreau and his star Downey hit the jackpot two years ago with the release of “Iron Man.” Not only did it manage to be the year’s second biggest domestic hit, bested solely by “The Dark Knight,” but it inched past Spielberg’s return to “Indiana Jones,” and even managed to become one of the year’s best-reviewed films.  Audiences loved it even more.  With the release of Marvel’s second installment, the winning streak continues, but not nearly to the same effect.

“Iron Man” did the impossible.  It blended moderately abundant action sequences into an impressive character study of Tony Stark, a weapons creator so self-absorbed and ignorant to the reality of the business he deals in.  Upon a rude awakening, Stark changed his vision for developing the ultimate weapon, eliminating multiple trigger-fingers, and standing alone as the sole necessary weapon of the United States.  “Iron Man 2” picks up where we last found Tony, only this time out, returning director Jon Favreau seems to be less interested in the thrills so predominant in the first outing.

In “Iron Man 2,” Stark has to take on the U.S. government, demanding that the Iron Man weapon be turned over to the military, as well as face off against multiple foes (Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke) trying to end his career and his life.  His friendship with Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is tested, as is the sexual tension between him and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  On top of that, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) starts hanging around to try and encourage Stark to stop fooling around and join the Avenger initiative.  Add in the fact that his new secretary (Scarlett Johansson) seems to have a secret looming and the reality that Tony’s power source that keeps him alive also has potentially fatal side effects on his body–it seems the man sure has his work cut out for him.  So much going on and so little intensity… But where’s all the kaboom??

It might be scary for fanboys to find out that “2” may have significant meaning in regards to the action on display in the film–the movie literally contains two action sequences to devour.  Not to say that burdens Tony Stark’s latest adventure, but it does allow for the content of this installment to be swarmed by multiple subplots and characters that never really advance the story in an exciting way.  Granted, this isn’t the cobbled mess that “Spider-Man 3” was, it just hasn’t the finesse of the film that preceded it.  Since no one could describe this as “an action-packed thrill ride,” Iron Man 2 luckily has brilliant actors and a very solid director in Favreau to save it.

This movie is totally, completely and utterly about Robert Downey, Jr.  Sure, we have all these great supporting actors, but every reason to see this movie rests upon the shoulders of a more-than-capable star portraying the single most interesting superhero character in the history of cinema.  Yes, I said that.  Who needs Bruce Wayne and his whiny-baby, cloak and dagger, angry teenager antics?  Who cares if Peter Parker can’t figure out if he’s more capable as a  human in love, a protector of New York, or an emo break-dancer?  Who wants to waste their time wondering why Wolverine can’t get his claws together and tell his past to go find someone who cares?  Tony Stark doesn’t play those games.  Downey has a fully realized character–top-dollar hilarious and engaging.  The movie goes for long stretches without things blowing up, and Downey manages to capture our attention with his inventiveness and brilliance as actor.

If the movie never reaches the level of the 2008 predecessor, it’s because the movie has a lot more down time and subplots.  The studio seems so bent on bridging “The Avengers” movie two years out, that Stark’s story suffers, and the movie becomes overwhelmed with exposition and witty banter.  At least it doesn’t kill the movie, and the action in the film really does deliver even in its limited doses.  Even Favreau allows himself to have a little game time, upping his role in the film, and kicking some butt in the middle of the big finale.  “Iron Man 2” may not be the film that ups the ante as far as sequels typically go, but the movie still manages to be plenty entertaining for two hours, and it contains a fully-realized hero that consistently breaks all the rules and dares to be wholly memorable.  Even if fanboys are left wanting more explosions, I’m sure they’ll be satisfied with this outing and jazzed about the upcoming showdown.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Iron Man 2

This is why great movies shouldn’t have sequels. Make no mistake, Iron Man was a great movie. It took a character from the depths of obscurity and made him a national symbol. Sure it was a comic book movie, but it had more heart and more flare than a lot of more serious films. The story of a man totally absorbed in himself and his own pleasure being changed and using his power to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves was truly inspiring, led by a truly gifted actor. The action, while limited in quantity, was excellent in quality.

How do you follow an act like that? Well, at the command of the almighty dollar, Marvel Studios had to try. To be fair, what they came up with is watchable, in fact clearly a better sequal than their colossal disappointments of Spiderman 2 and X2: X-Men United, but it has none of the power of Iron Man.

The scene in Iron Man where Stark rescues the villagers from the Ten Rings is a scene I’ll probably never forget. It took two thirds of the movie to get to Stark’s first heroics as Iron Man, but it was well worth it.

If you’re thinking that, now that we have the origin story out of the way, we’ll get some extra action and heroics, think again. Marvel has to cram in more subplots and implausible characters to eat up time. Well, that’s not so bad, you say, more plot development is good, right?

Not when the writers are used to writing for comic books. Comic books have room for stories that go in circles, whereas movies simply don’t. For example, in part 2, Stark finds out that he’s dying due to the effects of the reactor core he built in part 1. Precious time for action sequences disappears forever while he remodels his workshop to build a machine and creates some “new element” that was supposedly impossible to create through a process the movie never even tries to explain. This new element magically cures his ailment and everything goes back to normal, so it doesn’t even drive the story. If I were to read through a decade’s worth of monthly comic book issues, I would expect some filler crap like this, but for a movie, it’s just wrong.

Similarly, after Stark seemed to have gotten a new set of priorities in part 1, in part 2, we get more of him staggering drunkenly, driving sports cars, and trying to score. When someone turns over a new leaf, is it unreasonable to expect them to never relapse? Probably. But that’s not the point. Why are we paying to watch the same stuff over?

Unlike comic serials, which are expected to keep a story going perpetually, a movie can, and should, present a coherent story that stands on its own and doesn’t waste time with filler. Judging by the buzz among nerds over the past few years, and by the easter eggs in both Iron Man movies, Marvell plans on changing this. Iron Man 2 is actually set-up for movies about Thor and the Avengers (who include Iron Man). In other words, Marvell plans on making movies more like comic books, written not so much to entertain as to advertise the next movie and keep you coming back for more. This might score with the hardcore comic nerds, but I doubt the general public will tolerate it for long.

I should probably say that Iron Man 2 is not horrible, and is even kind of entertaining if you turn your brain off. I’m sure there will be a third one, and I’ll probably see it. After all, both Spiderman and X-Men made improvements with their third installments. Once Iron Man 2 is out on video, it won’t be a bad way for you to kill two hours.

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Rating: 3.5/5 (4 votes cast)

Inglourious Basterds

I B Teaser 1-Sht.Few cinematic visionaries have an eye and an ear quite like Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a brand of his own.  When you sit down for one of his movies, you know that the experience of it will be quite different from any other piece of filmmaking not of his craft.  Tarantino is a storyteller through and through, possibly a little self-indulgent in his work and overly animated in his regard for gratuitous violence, but he has a talent for originality from concept to execution.  “Inglourious Basterds” surpasses all of his recent works.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the previous incarnation of “Inglorious Bastards,” but I will say I doubt there can be much comparison based on Tarantino’s signature style and knack for meaty ongoing dialogue.  Much of “Basterds” is just that: a lot of style and talky-talky.  But, like all Tarantino works, the dialogue is so interesting, well-thought-out, and well-delivered that it really absorbs the audience.  Many scenes in the film are built around conversation and the tension often skyrockets.  The actual plot (or plots) of the film seem to exist as an afterthought when the written page onscreen has us so wrapped up.


Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa

I will admit I underestimated the storyline for this film.  I assumed (based on the marketing) that Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine, and his group of soldiers would spend 2 1/2 hours trekking through WWII Germany hunting, mutilating, torturing, and beating Nazis to bloody pulps.   Well there is some of that, yes, and some of it is very gratuitous and very violent.  Ultimately, that’s not the meat of the story.  Like all Tarantino movies, he constructs these sub-plots that intersect into one final meeting for the characters.  And that is the case here as well.  The movie opens with with a group of Nazi soldiers searching for Jews in hiding.  The Nazi leader, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), drills a dairy farmer for suspected harboring of a missing Jewish family, which the farmer has secretly been doing.  Upon the family’s discovery, Col. Landa orders them to be executed.  One of the younger girls of the family manages to escape and carries the horror of that day with her, until four years later she has an opportunity to avenge her family, which plays into the other developments of the story.  This particular scene reaches an unbelievable amount of tension and is, truthfully, beyond spectacular.  Heartbreaking, yes, but unbelievably effective.  Besides Tarantino’s expert penmanship, due credit belongs to Christoph Waltz’s slithering, brilliant performance–one that will guarantee him an Oscar nomination come year’s end.  Every time he’s onscreen, there is an unsettling sensation running through your veins, and he has many scenes to steal the show.

inglorious picThe Basterds’ chapter comes in after that setup.  As promised by all the commercials and trailers, Brad Pitt’s (who is hugely funny here) slurring southern Leuitenant calls upon him eight soldiers–experts in Nazi killin’.  Among the most recognizable faces are B.J. Novak from ‘The Office’, and Eli Roth (director of Cabin Fever and Hostel).  Roth is the only ‘actor’ in the film that doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It feels very much like an extended cameo by a filmmaker, and it never quite works for the overall look and feel of the movie.  It’s not that he hinders the movie per se, but his presence and performance fail to mesh with everything else.  And that’s hard to do in a film where Tarantino lets anything fly as he totally rewrites history in scene after scene, amounting to sheer brilliance for the most part.

“Inglourious Basterds” is not just violent, or bloody, but it’s also quite humorous, as Tarantino turns Hitler into a cry-baby cartoon, and then saddles every character with outrageous, gut-busting dialogue.  Listen to Brad Pitt pronounce “Bonjour-no” trying to masquerade through a Nazi gathering as an Italian.  Many viewers will walk away offended by the treatment of WWII and the Holocaust as presented here, but this movie is all about fantasy.  This is an alternate-reality revenge-flick put upon the Nazi regime.  Think a successful version of “Valkyrie” meets “Pulp Fiction” meets “Man on Fire.”  The tone of “Basterds” almost works perfectly, but Tarantino does let his scenes run on for some extended length, which make for a very long movie.   Almost every frame actually does work, but as usual for its writer-director, this movie takes its sweet old time.

I can’t complain too much.  This is the work of a filmmaking pioneer, like it or not.  Quentin Tarantino’s short resume has revolutionized cinema to some extent.  “Inglourious Basterds” is a welcome return to greatness we haven’t seen since 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and one of the few great films we’ve been granted this summer.  As a whole, this movie is a bit hit-and-miss, but mostly an awesome, violent, bloody, hilarious, history-rewriting event that should not be missed.

-MJV & the Movies

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Rating: 4.7/5 (3 votes cast)