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!





Silent House: A Deafening Exercise In Clever Filmmaking

9 03 2012

A remake of the Uruguayan horror film La Casa Muda, Silent House is a single-shot thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the younger sister of those twins). This no-editing, one-take spin on the genre has been the crux of the movie’s marketing campaign, inviting audiences to “experience 88 minutes of real fear caught in real time.” And, thankfully enough, it manages to do this while avoiding the burgeoning cliche that is “found footage” (more on that later). Here’s the breakdown:

Sarah (Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), head out to the family lakeside retreat, working to clean up the dilapidated house in order to sell it. But not all is as it seems and when a violent menace begins wreaking havoc on the trapped occupants, Sarah must find a way to escape and uncover the truth.

The Monkey: While it may have seemed gimmicky in some of the marketing materials, the single-take technique worked extremely well here. Not only was it mind-bendingly impressive (can you imagine messing up and having to start over?), it lent a certain sense of urgency and freshness to a relatively tried-and-true concept. Additionally, Silent House managed to capture some of that “found footage” feel without actually having to come up with some half-way believable contrivance of a story to convince the audience that a camera would be rolling the whole time. It also forced Olsen to carry the movie entirely on her own, a task which she tackled quite successfully. While the audience is introduced to Peter, John and few others, the camera never leaves Sarah, making this movie single-shot as well as single point-of-view. And without revealing too much, it’s this myopic perspective that keeps the movie from feeling like every other female-led horror flick.

As far as storytelling goes, there’s not much to tell without answering too many questions. The build-up to the scares are equally divided between horror-cliche-jump-outs and genuinely creepy. In particular, a bit with the eerie flash of a Polaroid camera will make you think twice about ever taking a photo again.

The Weasel: Again, without spoilers, it’s hard to delve into some of the deeper issues with Silent House, but I’ll give it a go. The ending. The movie relies on its clever camera work to distract the audience from the rather haphazard and rushed climax. The filmmakers seem to be going for a certain reaction, yet viewers are left confused, but not in the good Inception kind of way. Unlike a clever “thinker,” where you walk away finding new and unearthed threads of subtext, Silent House only becomes increasingly riddled with plot holes and unanswerable questions the more you think about it. It’s as if the filmmakers were saying, “See, wasn’t that fun? Now leave the theatre and don’t ask any questions…move along!” Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to comply with this sentiment, as you quickly realize the movie demands a repeat viewing but wouldn’t actually be any better for it.

A wildly inventive take on the terrified-female-horror-victim concept, Silent House is definitely worth a look, especially for the smattering of decent scares and its unique single-take approach.

4 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Does the “single-shot” concept seem clever or gimmicky? Did Olsen do a decent job carrying the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments!





Real Steel: A Solid One-Two Punch of a Film

15 10 2011

A movie about Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots? Not quite. While this is NOT a movie based on the grandfather of all button-mashing games, Real Steel is, indeed, a movie about robots beating the bolts out of each other. And it’s pretty darn fun. Here’s the breakdown:

The year is 2020 and human boxing is a thing of the past. Robot boxing is all the rage; robots can take more hits, move faster, create a more entertaining experience for spectators. Enter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), an ex-boxer himself who has adapted to the robot boxing craze. But when Charlie is reunited with his estranged son (Dakota Goyo), he must make some tough choices between money, fame and family.

The Monkey: The overall feel of Real Steel is very “Americana.” Its futuristic setting is not distracting and the state fairs, rural locations and even urban arena scenes still feel very real and accessible. At its core, Real Steel is about a father-son relationship and the fight to make dreams reality. Sound a bit cliche? Maybe, but Real Steel offers enough exciting visuals and compelling performances to make it all worth while. Speaking of exciting visuals and compelling performances…

The robot boxing scenes are spectacular. One can see why human boxing diminishes in the future; robot boxing is brutal and intense, an entertaining experience well beyond anything a human fighter could deliver. From crushed metal to leaking hydraulic fluid, squealing pistons to sparking wires, Real Steel might even have better robot fights than the Transformer movies…at the very least, much grittier. The filmmakers do an excellent job of showing the full breadth of the sport, from seedy underground rings to mega-stadium showdowns, lending a much appreciated level of credence to the story.

But it’s not all gleaming robots and spring-loaded punches. Real Steel is held together by a surprisingly emotional father-and-son story arc. Hugh Jackman plays the apathetic (and rather cold) Charlie well, keeping the audience at a distance without making the character unlikable. Despite his heartless behavior at the beginning of the film, you still want to see him succeed and move beyond his selfishness. Real Steel even dips into the very real problem of gambling and addiction, a shockingly mature theme for a movie touting robot fun for the whole family. While it is a surprising theme to include, it’s refreshing, made even more so by the absolutely stunning performance by relative unknown, Dakota Goyo.

This kid rocked it. And while Real Steel will probably never see an Oscar nomination, Goyo deserves one. Child actors are hit-or-miss, but Goyo makes his adult co-stars look like amateurs. Not only does he carry much of the comic relief in the film, he’s also responsible for much of the emotional drama. That’s a lot to expect from a young actor, but Goyo pulls it off not only well, but effortlessly. You almost forget he’s acting at all, he’s so completely comfortable and natural in his role as Max Kenton.

The film’s finale is pretty much what you’d expect from a sports-themed movie, but despite its predictable nature, it’s a pleasure to watch. The emotions are real, the action is intense; there’s nothing here not to like.

The Weasel: There are several unanswered questions. What happened to Max’s mom? What really was the connection between Max’s mom and Charlie? Much of the film is spent talking about how wonderful she was, but with little to go on, most of this seems like filler dialogue, not contributing to the overall emotional thread of the story.

And I’m unsure of what to say about the robot characters…if you can even call them characters. Atom is the main robot boxer, an outdated sparring robot that comes out of nowhere as the underdog competitor. Yet he’s controlled via remote and a “shadow” program. So is he somehow sentient? Several moments in the film hint at this. But if that’s the case, the violence of the boxing matches becomes uncomfortable. If this is a character that somehow has feelings and emotions, seeing these robots pummeled to scrap is rather unsettling. But if they aren’t emotional characters, it’s hard to really have an emotional stake in their fight, aside from their human controllers. I think this is an aspect of the film that could have really been examined more closely, and could have elevated the philosophical tone of the story. Humans were replaced by robots, but are the robot fights any more “humane”? If the human characters in the movie were forced to ask some of these tough questions, it would have added a wonderful amount of depth to the already solid story…alas, it was relatively glossed over.

A creative take on the sports drama, Real Steel is a fun action movie, a special-effects feast and a surprisingly emotional father-son story. Definitely wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to this one.

4.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did you enjoy the robot fights? How’d you think Dakota Goyo did in his role? Share your thoughts in the comments!





Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Less Horror and More Dark Fairy Tale

29 08 2011

A remake of the 1973 made-for-TV movie of the same name, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a Guillermo del Toro produced “horror” film starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and  Bailee Madison. Here’s the breakdown:

When Sally (Madison) moves in with her architect father (Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Holmes), she unwittingly uncovers a centuries old secret and unleashes a living nightmare.

The Monkey: The tone of this movie was rock solid. From the set design to the music; from the cinematography to the script, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark thoroughly maintained its “creepiness” factor. The sprawling Victorian mansion became a character all its own, with its blood-red stained glass, creaking stairs, secret chambers, roaring fireplaces, labyrinthine gardens and classic fixtures. It was a haunted house from backyard to buttress.

Del Toro brought much of what made his critically-acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth a success to this endeavor as well. A classic story, with genre tropes twisted just enough to feel refreshingly original and genuinely creepy. More of a “dark fairy tale” than a true horror film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark played out its fantastical elements without apology and del Toro’s contributions continued to shine throughout, especially regarding the honesty of the storytelling (not to mention his almost infamous creature designs).

While the “Don’t go in there!” moments were myriad, it lent to the overall “We’ve seen this before but we don’t mind seeing it again” feeling that permeated the whole movie. Fairy tales are grounded on archetypes and familiar plots…so it becomes all about the embellishments. And there were many here. A truly blood-chilling opening sequence, creepy music-box music, grotesque drawings and even a homage-ish shower/bath scene, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark rests firmly on the bones of tried-and-true ghost stories, allowing the filmmakers room to get creative with the trappings.

The Weasel: Unfortunatley, the movie was not exactly marketed well. Touted as a true horror film, the movie was much more thriller, much more dark fairy tale. And while there were wonderful tastes of this (especially when the story began to focus on its own mythology), the fantastical elements seemed almost out of place, in that it kept the movie from becoming actually terrifying. The fantastic nature of the story should have been given more prominence.

The acting was neither here nor there; decent enough to support the story, without being distracting.

There was a significant portion of the movie dedicated to the family drama surrounding Sally’s estranged parents and Kim, the new girlfriend. This relationship was played up even more in the final moments of the film; however, the build-up was shoddy at best and unbelievable at worst. Tonally, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was never quite sure of itself, and the mismatched drama/horror/fantasy pieces were evidence of this.

In the end, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a big-budget camp-side ghost story, an extended episode of the Twilight Zone, a twisted fairy tale. A bit of mis-marketing and some tonal inconsitencies aside, don’t be afraid to give this movie a chance.

And on a side note: there was NO reason for this movie to be rated R. This was practically cable TV ready, with no gore, swearing, nudity…R for “Violence and Terror”? Please. The most ridiculous rating I’ve ever seen.

2.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a decent remake? Did you find it more horror or fantasy? Share your thoughts in the comments!





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!





Your Highness: A Great Idea That Wears Thin Quickly

14 04 2011

Danny McBride gets his first major starring role in Your Highness, co-starring James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Justin Theroux. Here’s the breakdown:

Prince Thadeous (McBride) is a worthless stoner of a prince, especially when compared to his brother, the heroic Prince Fabious. But when Fabious’ bride-to-be, Belladonna (Deschanel) is abducted by the evil warlock Leezar (Theroux), both brothers must embark on a quest to rescue her. Along the way they must overcome many obstacles and meet many strangers, including the beautiful and mysterious traveler, Isabel (Portman).

The Monkey: At its core, Your Highness is a stoner-comedy-road-trip-buddy-film-raunch-fest…set in the Middles Ages. The juxtaposition is quite comical.

There were some genuinely funny moments; McBride is a talented comedian and his comic timing (especially with Rasmus Hardiker who plays Thadeous’ manservant, Courtney) is enjoyable and spot on.

A pleasant surprise: the special effects. From a five-headed serpent to a spectacular finale, Your Highness manages to pack blockbuster-like action into a genre typically devoid of such visuals. It was also nice to see Weta involved with the creature work: from perverted pot-smoking gremlin wise-men (don’t ask) to horny Minotaurs (no, seriously, don’t ask) Weta proves they are the go-to workshop for creature makeup, prosthetics and the like.

The Weasel: Unfortunately, the hilarious juxtaposition of modern, raunchy humor with the medieval setting wore out its welcome about ten minutes into the movie. Watching a character say the ‘f’ word with a horribly (albeit, purposefully) fake British accent is a gag that only worked once – yet, for some reason, was continuously played out throughout the entirety of the movie.

James Franco and Natalie Portman were clearly hired for their notoriety. Both coming off Oscar nominations (and a win), it’s rather dumbfounding to see them in a movie like Your Highness. They offer nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished by any other actor. It’s not that they were bad (except for Franco’s GOD AWFUL accent), it’s just that they were…meh. Zooey Deschanel is hardly even worth mentioning as her screen time amounted to, maybe, five minutes.

The biggest flaw with Your Highness was its reliance on a one-trick ploy: let’s tell dirty jokes with British accents and swords in our hands. It would have worked marvelously as a Funny Or Die short (especially given those shorts’ preponderance for featuring notable actors like Franco and Portman). But imagine your favorite online sketch comedy segment elongated into a painful hour and a half. SNL has tried this multiple times, and has been met, multiple times, with failure. Just because the characters are wearing amour and flailing swords doesn’t make the penis jokes any more original.

A great concept…that should have been kept to five minutes.

1.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Does Danny McBride have a future as a comedic leading man? Do you feel Your Highness would have worked better as a comedy sketch short? Share your thoughts in the comments!





Arthur: A Talented Cast Does Not Good Chemistry Make

9 04 2011

A remake of the 1981 film starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and John Gielgud, Arthur stars Russell Brand in the title role, as well as Helen Mirren, Luis Guzman, Jennifer Garner and Greta Gerwig. Here’s the breakdown:

Wealthy and spoiled billionaire Arthur Bach (Brand) leads a life of blissful ignorance. Content to drink himself into ridiculous (and expensive) situations, Arthur knows nothing of the real world. Other than his chauffeur Bitterman (Guzman) and his trusty nanny Hobson (Mirren), Arthur has no friends. That is, until he meets Naomi (Gerwig). But when his mother (Geraldine James) threatens to cut him off unless he marries business partner Susan (Garner), Arthur must choose between love and money.

The Monkey: While Brand can often come off campy, abrasive and one-dimensional, his turn as Arthur was surprisingly genuine and endearing. His childlike outlook was wonderfully juxtaposed with his copious drinking and adult sensibilities.

The writing was well done and the jokes were above par, often witty and surprising. One can’t argue Brand’s natural talent for comic timing and delivery. But it was Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner that nearly stole the show. Mirren has been no stranger to comedy of late (RED, a recent Funny Or Die short film) and she proves she has comic chops in Arthur. Her understated, heavy-lidded performance was wonderful and remarkably funny; but more than that, there was a third-dimension not often seen in secondary comic characters. Her emotional scenes were just as compelling as her comedic ones, which contributed to the movie’s unexpected depth and layering.

Garner also delivered a noteworthy performance, stepping out of the traditional leading lady role and filling the shoes of the movie’s villainous Susan. Conniving, power-hungry and unstoppable, Garner’s Susan was delightful and the chemistry between Brand and Garner was, shall we say, magnetic (there’s a floating magnetic bed involved at one point). In fact, they worked so well together onscreen, it was a shame their two characters didn’t end up together – it would have been much more believable (more on that below).

Aside from the wonderful performances, Arthur managed to incorporate a fair amount of heart into an otherwise comedy of one-liners. Brand had even more chemistry with Mirren than with Garner and the two of them lit up the screen, both in their comic scenes and their more serious moments.

The Weasel: I’ve been surprised to see that many reviewers see Arthur as Greta Gerwig’s shining moment, claiming she nearly stole the show. I’m dumbfounded. She was awful. Her blank-eyed stare and mumbled lines were distracting at best, inane at worst. There was absolutely zero chemistry between herself and Brand; in fact, there were times when  it seemed Brand was physically in pain just by being near her. Not in a million years would Arthur have given up his billions for Naomi. And when you have a pivotal relationship that is so utterly unbelievable, the whole movie starts to collapse. You were supposed to cheer for her and Arthur, but I wanted Garner’s Susan to crush her and ride off into the sunset with Arthur instead.

Luis Guzman was horribly underutilized, to the point of nonexistence and Nick Nolte (as Susan’s father) was awkward beyond belief, his scenes being some of the most ridiculous and unnecessary of the entire movie – and when you have a drunk Brit flying through Manhattan in the Batmobile, that’s saying something.

And while there were nice moments of heart, they were unconnected and ad hoc, unable to contribute to an overall sense of coherent plot or character development.

A seemingly unnecessary remake, Arthur manages to pack in some clever wit and some endearing emotional moments. But despite the valiant efforts of Brand, Garner and Mirren, Gerwig sank this movie in an irredeemable way.

3 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? How does the remake compare to the original? Do you like Mirren in comedic roles? What’s your opinion of Greta Gerwig in this movie? Share your thoughts in the comments!