The Avengers: A Summer Blockbuster With Heart, Laughs and ‘Hell, Yeahs!’

3 05 2012

Marvel’s The Avengers is the culmination of years of filmmaking and storytelling. With two Hulk movies, two Iron Man movies, a Thor movie and a Captain America movie already released, audiences finally get to see the payoff on the big screen. The plot has been set into motion, the characters have been established…all that’s left is a rip-roaring good time. And that’s exactly what director Joss Whedon and crew deliver. Here’s the breakdown:

Thor’s half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has a thirst for power (not to mention a grudge) and has set his sights on Earth, threatening the planet with an alien army. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D., must bring a disparate group of superheros together to combat this evil and save the world. But can Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) put aside their differences to save the day?

The Monkey: Joss Whedon fans rejoice. The Avengers is finally the vehicle that will get him the credit he has so long deserved. Whedonites have known, for years, that he’s a visionary artist who handles storytelling and character brilliantly. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the less popular, but no less inventive, Firefly and Dollhouse have been made privy to Joss’ unique brand of entertainment for a while now. And with the current success of The Cabin in the Woods (which Whedon co-wrote and produced) and with the sure-fire smash hit that is The Avengers, expect Whedon to be handling some very big projects in the future. This is his year, and The Avengers is clearly his movie. It was a gamble on Marvel’s part to hand the reins of this massive undertaking to a relative big screen newcomer (up until now, Whedon’s major big screen credit was 2005’s Serenity, based on his Firefly TV show); but the decision was a stroke of genius, and positive reviews and word-of-mouth will lead The Avengers to box office platinum in no time.

Everything about this movie works. The special effects are breathtaking; the stakes are high and believable (in context); the acting is dead on; the emotional moments are there (and they’re surprisingly visceral); the humor is there; the “hell, yeah!” moments are there. The Avengers has it all and then some. Marvel’s move to release the solo hero films in anticipation of this grand team-up was ambitious at best, crazy at worst. How was a single film going to contain all these personalities, all these stories, that warranted stand-alone (not to mention sequel) films? Whedon has always excelled with ensemble casts, and his deft style was perfect for the job. The Avengers pays equal tribute to the various characters represented, even working to flesh them out still further, while uniting them. Everything from choice bits of dialogue to purposeful camera work helps achieve this sense of cohesion and solidity. The Avengers could have easily turned into a hack-and-slash job, with characters popping on and off camera, strung together with nothing more than flashy explosions and quipped one-liners. But Whedon elevates the whole concept and delivers a final product that goes beyond expectations. Not only is The Avengers a phenomenal movie-going experience, it far surpasses even the best of Marvel’s predecessor films. That in itself is a feat.

This is the perfect summer blockbuster. Not just explosions and fancy ad campaigns, but a genuine, well-plotted, well-written, well-executed story. These are characters that audiences have come to love and care about, and now they are brought together. They experience hilarious highs and depressing lows – and Whedon makes the audience feel it all, right alongside them. And yes, the explosions are impressive, arguably some of the best effects work seen to date. On a side note, the movie was converted to 3D, which usually results in sub-par viewing; however, the 3D was well done and was a lot of fun.

While many are saying the Hulk stole the show (and don’t get me wrong, he was a definite highlight), I’d have to say this is very much Iron Man’s movie. Downey, Jr. was made for this role and his third return to Tony Stark/Iron Man only solidifies that perception. His character goes through the most change, the biggest arc, and it’s clear Whedon has a soft spot for the character. He spends a lot of time setting Stark up – scenes with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) are pitch-perfect. And despite his often ridiculous get-up, Hiddleston’s Loki is impressive. He stands his ground against the Avengers easily and makes for a quite scary and seemingly insurmountable foe.

The Weasel: It was only 142 minutes? It’s hard to think of a major flaw with the film. There were small plot points that seemed pointless (needing to steal a special mineral to help stabilize the alien power source, The Tesseract), but nothing felt forced or mis-paced. The newly introduced Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) seemed underutilized, a mere throwback to Whedon’s love of kick-ass female characters (Black Widow, apparently, just wasn’t enough for him).

With solid character development, a healthy dose of humor, dazzling special effects and so much more, The Avengers is the movie of summer, and maybe even the movie of the year. And stay during the credits for a mid-credit teaser scene (there reportedly is even a second scene after the credits); clearly this is not the last of the Avengers and a sequel is in the works. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last of Whedon’s involvement either.

5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did The Avengers live up to the hype? Did Whedon do an acceptable job tying the Marvel properties together? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Conan the Barbarian: A Fun Action Flick…Better Suited For Your Xbox

22 08 2011

A remake of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1982 cult classic, Conan the Barbarian stars Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephan Lang, Ron Perlman and Rose McGowan. Here’s the breakdown:

As a young boy, Conan (Momoa) witnesses the massacre of his village and family, including his father (Perlman), by the ruthless warlord Khalar Zym. Zym and his witch daughter Marique (McGowan) are after pieces of a mystical mask that, once assembled, will turn Zym into a god. Conan grows up to be a warrior and a thief, all the while seeking his father’s murderer. When the grown Conan stumbles across Zym, still on his god-quest, an epic struggle ensues, and the fate of the world and the fate of an innocent girl (Nichols) who’s ancestral blood is the key to Zym’s plans hangs in the balance.

The Monkey: Conan the Barbarian was, most noticeably, visually stunning. From idyllic Cimmerian villages to sprawling temple cities, this movie definitely delivered audiences an epic feel.

It was also nice to sit through a hard-R action adventure, where nudity and violence weren’t shied away from. It’s a story that lends itself to such excess and never did it feel over-the-top or unnecessary (although a certiain scene involving a finger and a nose had me squirming).

The fight scenes were extremely well choreographed and surprisingly original. A standout scene involving bewitched sand warriors was by far the best action piece in the movie and was incredibly entertaining, original and looked amazing in 3D. And Stephan Lang’s Zym and his double-bladed sword action was some of the best and most exciting sword work since Star Wars.

Jason Momoa and Stephen Lang played their respective roles well, playing off each other and bringing a believable amount of chemistry to the screen. While I wasn’t entirely convinced that Momoa could take on the Conan mantle (based on the movie’s marketing), he surprised and fit the role with the right amount of humor, brawn and bravado. Perlman was, as ever, enjoyable as Conan’s stalwart father, Corin.

The Weasel: The rest of the cast was a bit weak. Rachel Nichols’ whining Tamara was an unlikable love interest and would-be heroine. And Rose McGowan’s villainous Marique was almost comical; how that woman and her immovable Botox addled mug get any acting gigs at all amazes me.

The plot played out much like a video game. I half-expected to see “level-ups” and “loading” bars between scenes. This led to the movie’s biggest problem; a lack of urgency and danger. Zym had been searching for the mask for decades and yet he was just now letting the pieces fall into place? Just as Conan happens to be of ripe ass-kicking age? The movie really could have used a “race against time” feel to it. In addition, the video game quality caused each fight scene to become repetitive; yes we know Conan can kill, yes we know he’ll win – there was never any real sense of danger, and each time Conan was pitted against enemies, it just made the next encounter that much more unnecessary.

Momoa has supposedly written a sequel to Conan the Barbarian and sees this movie as his ticket to even more leading roles. Unfortunately, I think the poor box office and negative reviews might set him back a bit. And that sequel? Yeah, probably not happening.

Conan the Barbarian is an action-packed, violent, testosterone-fest. And it’s fun. While it suffers in the acting and plot department, the action scenes and the 3D make this a fun, B-sword-and-sandals flick. Don’t expect any more.

3 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Is this newer Conan a worthy reboot? Did Momoa do an adequate job of filling Schwarzenegger’s shoes? Do you want to see a sequel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Final Destination 5: A Study In Redundancy

15 08 2011

Wasn’t the last Final Destination movie called The FINAL Destination? Yes, yes it was. Yet, money and box office “cha-chings” are the immortal waters of the Fountain of Youth to film franchises, so here we are, yet again, with a 5th episode. It’s like freakin’ Cher and her “farewell” tours…you know there’s gonna be another one. So, here’s the breakdown:

Boy has vision of terrible accident (this time a bridge collapse). People die horrible deaths (cables, oil, boats, etc. are involved). Boy saves a group of people (insert list of archetypal horror film blood-n-guts fodder). Said “lucky” group of people start dying off in increasingly gory and “creative” ways, all in the order with which they died in the vision. Remaining survivors try to figure out how to stop Death’s relentless march – after all, he doesn’t like to be cheated (or so we’re told).

The Monkey: Fans of the franchise will be excited to see a return to basics; clever, edge-of-your-seat kills, dark humor and a familiar plot structure. And let’s be honest – the kills are what people are wanting to see when they pay for a ticket anyway. The kills in Final Destination 5 are definitely more creative than previous installments. Just when you think you have it figured out, Death takes you down a twisted path to a blood-soaked end you could have never guessed. Cringe-worthy for sure. After every kill, audience reaction went as follows: “Ooohhhhh! Hahaha! *Clap* *Whistle*.” We’re the YouTube generation and watching train-wrecks and wipe-outs has created an audience ever receptive to this kind of entertainment.

The opening sequence was impressive, especially considering the relatively conservative $47 million budget. There was also a pretty clever twist ending that had me nodding in appreciation. But the best part of Final Destination 5 was the 3D. It was gloriously cheesy and everything you’d expect from a B-horror film. From impaling rebar to flying body parts, there was no shortage of blood and guts flying at your face. Exploitation of the medium? Absolutely. Satisfying? You bet.

The Weasel: I have to imagine the script for this movie was like a MadLib. “Fill in the blanks with different ways for people to die!” No one goes to these movies for the witty dialogue or the ingenious plot; however, a little time and creativity would have been appreciated. If you’ve seen any of the others, you’ve seen this one. Aside from the moderately surprising ending, there was nothing about Final Destination 5 that contributed much to the franchise. Mediocre acting, a subpar script and an awkward effort at dark comedy stained this blood-fest an irrevocable shade of “blah.”

Will fans like this movie? Considering it’s a marked improvement on the last two installments, yes, I’m sure they will. Even fans of over-the-top horror/gore films will find something to enjoy. But anyone looking for a clever take on a tried and (sometimes) true story structure should just rent the first film and pretend it’s the 5th one.

1.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Was Final Destination 5 a successful addition to the franchise? Did the end surprise you (no spoilers in the comments please!)? Anyone want to take bets that Final Destination 6 involves a cruise ship? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: A Deliciously Dark Set-Up For An Epic Finale

19 11 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is, obviously, the first installment of the two-part series finale. It’s expected this film will push the Harry Potter franchise above Star Wars as the highest grossing film-series of all time (that is, until Lucas releases all six films in 3D starting in 2012). Regardless of box office projections and the like, fans are nearing the end of this ten year cinematic journey with bittersweet emotions. Here’s the breakdown:

Harry embarks on his quest to destroy Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes, the various vessels where pieces of the Dark Lord’s soul reside. Loyal friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley join Harry on this perilous adventure. The three embark on a lonely race against time, as the wizarding world falls into chaos and darkness: Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic both are overrun by Death Eaters and loyal supporters of Harry and the recently deceased Dumbledore find themselves facing imprisonment and death. But Harry will need more than just luck to defeat Voldemort: he’ll need three of the most powerful magical artifacts…the Deathly Hallows.

The Weasel: This is a Harry Potter film like no other. Over the course of six films, Harry’s world has been sufficiently established. This leaves director David Yates free to explore the intricacies of the character relationships, while moving the film toward its epic finale in Part 2. Gone are the warm fires of the Three Broomsticks Inn, gone are the exciting Quidditch matches, gone are the familiar halls of Hogwarts: this movie is deliciously dark and fans will love how the movie stays true to the mood of the book.

Aside from the movie’s exciting opening sequence (where Harry and Co. are ambushed mid-broomstick flight by Death Eaters), Part 1 is very ponderous. And while some may see this as a weakness, I found it not only refreshing, but necessary. If cast and crew are to be believed, and if Part 2 remains as true to the book as Part 1, the final installment will be a flurry of wand spells and magical carnage, leaving little room for character development and emotional investment. Yates makes sure to set up the finale’s emotional anchor in Part 1, reminding audiences why we love these characters and why we want to see them succeed…and survive.

Part 1 is essentially a road movie. The wide camera shots of bleak, fog-laced bridges, burned-out trailer parks and abandoned buildings, mixed with the crackle of a monotonous radio announcer listing the names of recently killed wizards and witches was chilling and reminiscent of World War II and post-apocalyptic fare. People are dying, evil is taking over and hope is tenuous.

I applaud Yates for tackling the dark themes of Book Seven head-on, unabashedly. The film’s important deaths (no spoilers here) are handled wonderfully and with enough respect to please fans. And even a particularly troubling torture scene involving Hermione and the demented Bellatrix (played absolutely perfectly by Helena Bonham Carter) was kept in the final cut of the film and proves Harry’s swan song will hold nothing back – the stakes are high, for Harry and fans both. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Part 1 has its humorous moments, moments that are welcome, helping break up the oppressive mood. The return of the House-Elves and the ever-comedic Polyjuice Potion gives audiences a chance to smile.

The visuals have really been taken to the next level: from Voldemort’s over-sized snake Nagini to thrilling wand fights high above London’s skyline, Death Hallows Part 1 gives audiences a taste of the visual feast in store come Part 2’s July release. I’m glad the filmmakers decided to kill any half-assed attempts at 3D conversion for this installment; the last thing fans want is a Clash of the Titans debacle.

One last note: the introduction of the Deathly Hallows was presented to audiences in such a clever and artful way, it was almost my favorite part of the whole movie. Hermione reads “The Tale of the Three Brothers” while a beautifully animated sequence plays out on the screen. The animation was gorgeous and the decision to include this in the film was brilliant.

The Weasel: Deathly Hallows Part 1 is definitely a set-up movie. Sure, it stands respectably on its own, but it is most definitely in need of its final act. Those who don’t know how the series ends might be left confused and unsure of converging events. With so many new plot points thrown in at the last minute (and this was a frustration I had even with the novels), un-indoctrinated viewers might find Part 1 a mish-mash of plot threads and set-up material. The movie’s efforts to please purists results in some plodding moments, but, at this point, fans would much rather have a complete representation of the story, slow pacing and all, than a truncated action piece.

A stellar installment in the franchise, one that sets itself apart by its dark tone and unapologetic storytelling, Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the perfect set-up to Part 2, but will likely never fully stand alone without its final counterpart.

4.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did you enjoy the darker tone of the movie? Were you pleased with the book-to-screen translation? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Megamind: Mega Action With A Surprising Amount Of Thought

5 11 2010

Megamind is the latest Dreamworks animated film, complete with the voice talents of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross and Brad Pitt. And just like How to Train Your Dragon, this family-friendly comedy hits theatres in both 2D and 3D formats. Here’s the breakdown:

Megamind has been Metro Man’s archnemesis for as long as they can remember. But when one of Megamind’s nefarious schemes actually manages to eliminate Metro Man from the picture, Megamind must come to grips with a world that doesn’t need him…after all, what’s a super villain to do without a super hero around?

The Monkey: Every time I see a 3D animated film, the animation seems to get better and better. Megamind is no exception. The detail and art direction were superb and the 3D version of the film was crystal clear.

The voice talent is what really made the movie. Will Ferrell actually managed to sound a little different, taking on a character outside of his usual obnoxious comedy stereotype (If only he could do this in live action movies – maybe The Other Guys would have been more enjoyable). Tina Fey played the damsel-in-distress reporter role admirably, and her comedic timing elicited many of the movie’s laughs. Jonah Hill, while playing pretty close to his comfort zone, was perfect for the role of a goofy cameraman with a bigger part to play. And Brad Pitt was the perfect choice for the god-like Metro Man. I was also happy to discover that all the funny parts had not been revealed in the trailers, which is a feat for a movie that has had such a saturating marketing campaign.

Aside from the visuals and the talent, I loved how the characters resembled their voice actors. They were just close enough to be recognizable, but just different enough to be cartoony and exaggerated. This was a wonderful nod to adult audiences who know these actors from their other, live-action films.

Like with Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise, Megamind is definitely family fare, but has plenty for adults to enjoy as well. Inside jokes about popular superhero movies and pop culture references abound – at one point, a kid sitting behind me even asked his mom, “Why is everyone laughing?” So, keep in mind – younger kids will love this movie for the slapstick humor and the visuals, but older kids (who might not get the more adult jokes) might be lost in the middle.

At the movie’s core, Megamind asks the obvious questions, but they are the questions rarely broached in the superhero genre: What happens if there are no superheroes? Do villains arise because of superheroes or vice versa? Is the difference between hero and villain that big? These philosophical questions actually are quite deep, giving Megamind an extra layer that more mature audiences can further explore and enjoy, even after the credits roll.

The Weasel: There were moments when the plot played out pretty predictably, and the pacing left you waiting for the next explosion or gag. Also, the beginning set-up for the movie (Megamind’s and Metro Man’s backstories) seemed rushed, especially when Metro Man disappeared from the movie so early on. It led to a lurching first act, and while it resolved itself in act two, it definitely marred the movie’s start.

Overall, a beautifully animated, fun, action-packed, humorous, family-friendly movie that adds a surprising amount of thought and philosophy into the mix.

4 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did Megamind make you think about superheroes and villains differently? Did you enjoy the more adult jokes? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Resident Evil: Afterlife: A Movie In Desperate Need of Salvation

20 09 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife is the fourth installment in the video-game-turned-zombie-movie franchise and the first one to be in 3D. Milla Jovavich returns as Alice, the kick-ass heroine of all four movies. Here’s the breakdown:

Alice makes her way north, to Alaska. There, she hopes to find Arcadia, a supposed safe haven from the devastating zombie virus. But upon her arrival, she realizes Arcadia is not what it seems. Meeting up with old and new friends and pitted against new enemies, Alice must uncover the devious Umbrella Corporation’s latest, sinister plot.

The Monkey: The action is deliciously over-the-top. Any shred of believability was lost far earlier in the series, giving the filmmakers an opportunity to play in an almost unlimited sandbox. With freefall firefights, gratuitous slow-motion and plenty of blood-n-guts, Resident Evil: Afterlife fits right in with its previous installments.

While I’m sure James Cameron would cringe at Afterlife’s use of 3D, audiences will enjoy it. What would a 3D zombie movie be without brains, bullets and massive battle axes flying into the audience? A bit overdone, but awesomely so.

The Weasel: Unfortunately, despite the fun action sequences and 3D goodness, there’s a lot to dislike about Afterlife. Definitely the weakest of the four films, the movie felt more like a bridge to the fifth installment, which has since been confirmed. The plot jumped around uncontrollably, moving from a promising thread about Arcadia, to ridiculous situations designed just to facilitate action scenes.

An opening scene in Tokyo, while exciting, had little impact on the rest of the movie, making the scene rather pointless. In fact, a plot thread from the previous movies (the Alice clones) was all but glossed over and tossed aside. There were many seemingly huge story developments that the movie skimmed right over in its haste to blast zombie brains all over the place, which is really too bad, because there’s a great story in these movies…somewhere. The characters of Claire and Chris Redfield were wasted miserably, to the point where I have to assume the meat of their screen time was left on the cutting room floor. And the rest of the cast were pointless production costs, as it was clear from the beginning they were nothing more than zombie fodder, to be predictably picked off one by one.

Alice’s ridiculous video-cammed “diary” entries were a cheap way to explain (or at least try to explain) the gaping plot holes.

Lastly, the final boss fight was lacking significantly. A cross between The Matrix and a straight-to-DVD testosterone flick, there was nothing new or particularly dazzling about Alice’s last stand.

Afterlife plays out like a kick-ass, 3D music video, crippled by lack of story. I hope the fifth film delivers a better script – and then delivers the zombie splattering action fans love.

2.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? How did you like Afterlife compared to the rest of the Resident Evil movies? Are you looking forward to the fifth installment? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Toy Story 3: A Third Time Continues to Charm

24 06 2010

Pixar’s ground-breaking Toy Story saga concludes this summer with Toy Story 3, reuniting audiences with some of Disney’s (and cinema’s) most memorable characters. Here’s the breakdown:

Andy is headed to college and Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the rest of the gang wonder what will become of them. Deciding that life at a local daycare center is better than retirement in the attic, the toys head to Sunnyside, where they meet Lotso, the seemingly friendly leader of the ragtag group of daycare toys. But not all is as it seems, and Woody must team up with new and old friends alike to save his family and return to Andy.

The Monkey: Pixar’s number one asset is their writers. As poor box office numbers plague such visually stimulating movies as Jonah Hex and The A-Team, it is becoming increasingly clear that a good story will not only please audiences, but studio execs as well. The characterization is solid, the plot is familiar, yet refreshing enough to avoid feeling overdone. And Pixar knows their audience. Sure, a new generation of kids will enjoy this third foray into the world of talking toys, but the true fanbase for the Toy Story franchise is 20-somethings, who themselves were kids when the original film debuted in 1995. With this in mind, Toy Story 3 kept the humor family-friendly while managing to appeal to the original fans (once again, Mr. Potato Head has some belly-laugh-inducing moments).

Seeing the movie in 3D did little for me, other than giving me the opportunity to see the movie in digital projection. The crystal clear image threw Pixar’s quality animation style into sharp contrast with similarly animated fare.

The new characters that were introduced (while numerous) were memorable, especially Lotso and Ken. And Lotso’s turn as the film’s villain was more fleshed out and better written than Toy Story 2’s Stinky Pete the Prospector.

The ending of the movie was satisfying, bringing a wonderful film to a wonderful conclusion.

The Weasel: There were a lot of new characters, almost too many. Not only was there a whole new cast of toys at Sunnyside, but another group was introduced, a collection of toys owned by daycare attendee, Bonnie. It was this latter group that was more intriguing, and I wish the film had spent more time acquainting the audience with the likes of Mr. Pricklepants, Trixie and Buttercup. Perhaps we’ll see more of these characters sometime in the future…?

At times, the peril the toys found themselves in bordered on ridiculous, going as far as a descent into a veritable hell (in the form of a garbage incinerator). But just when it seemed too much, the filmmakers pulled back, splashing in some humor and charm.

Yet another success for Pixar and another enjoyable move-going experience. Sure to be a contender for Best Animated Film at next year’s Oscars, Toy Story 3 is certainly deserving of a nomination; however, the previously released How to Train Your Dragon could be well deserving of the top honor.

4.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Was Toy Story 3 a fitting ending to the series? Do you think we’ll see more Toy Story films in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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