Tuesday, May 29, 2012

MEN IN BLACK 3 - Back in Black?

MEN IN BLACK 3 Review:

- Man, I still remember how excited I was back in the day for the original Men In Black film. At the time, I was a young geek obsessed with all things aliens and X-Files, and I was fascinated with the concept of the fabled "men in black" who were prevalent in popular UFO mythology, and who were a key factor in my all-time favorite X-Files episode, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." I also remember how disappointed I was to find out that Men In Black was a tongue-in-cheek blockbuster, featuring a quip-happy Will Smith in the lead. I was a dark and brooding pre-teen who wanted a dark and brooding movie about men in black, dammit - none of this jokey kids stuff! Suffice it to say, when I thumbed through the issue of Entertainment Weekly with the MiB cover story (mailed to me at summer camp by my parents, who assumed I was excited for the film), I did so with the seething resentment of a boy who had no time for lame kids stuff.

Well, I've mellowed a bit in my old age. I'm now not quite so averse to a good tongue-in-cheek blockbuster if it's done right. And where once I was totally dismissive of the Men In Black series, I was now pretty open to it. I mean, you couldn't get much worse than the second one ... so, I was curious to see what, after so many years of franchise dormancy, a new Men In Black movie could bring to the table.

As it turns out, this might actually be the best film in the franchise so far. I'm not saying it's great (the bar was pretty low), but overall this one just felt, well, competent. There were a number of performances I enjoyed, there was a fairly fun premise, and even a little heart thrown in for good measure.

At the same time, the movie again sort of coasts along on Will Smith's charm. You'll smile, you'll smirk ... but really laugh? Not exactly. There is some wittiness in the script, but nothing too witty. And the time-travel plotline is handled decently, but the movie only does so much with it. There are no real Back to the Future-level twists - everything is handled in about as straightforward and predictable manner as possible.

As you probably know (and as I just alluded to), this is indeed a time-travel movie. I love time-travel, so maybe that's why I was a bit more open-minded going in. But anyways, the basic plot is that a nefarious alien called Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement, with a name that sounds more like the moniker of a Russian wrestler) has gone back in time to exact vengeance on Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) by killing off his younger self and changing history to facilitate an invasion by his people in the future. Years ago, K foiled Boris' evil plans and left him minus an arm - and had him locked away in space prison for decades - and so, yeah, Boris is pissed. Also, Boris looks like late-period Macho Man Randy Savage, and talks like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In any case, due to crazy time-travel hijinks, J (Smith) finds himself in a world where history has been changed and K never made it to craggy middle age. So J travels back in time, to stop Boris from mucking with time. Back in 1969, J teams with Josh Brolin as a 29 year old K (who looks about 45, but I guess that's part of the joke?) to track down Boris and engage in some serious male bonding.

The thing that elevates this film is the performances. Smith and Jones have always had a fun chemistry, but Brolin takes things to another level. For one, his TLJ impression is uncanny and just plain enjoyable to watch. For another, this is one of the best actors of our time we're talking about, so he's just plain good. His timing is spot-on, and his line delivery is pitch-perfect. I also really liked Jermaine Clement as Boris. Yes, the character he plays is incredibly ridiculous and random, but Clement goes balls-to-the-wall with it and makes it somehow work. Finally, Michael Stuhlbarg (from A Serious Man) is really good as an omniscient alien who acts as an enigmatic guide to J and K. The guy is just a phenomenal actor and should be in more stuff.

While the film spends a lot of time on the relationship between J and K, a lot of plot points feel severely underdeveloped. A romantic subplot between K and O (the younger version is played by Alice Eve) goes nowhere and lacks much, if any, resolution. Bill Hader makes a cameo as Andy Warhol circa 1969 that serves little purpose. And the big twist at the end produces some legitimate heartsting-tugging, but then is sort of just left hanging without the exclamation point you'd expect. Meanwhile, the 1969 setting is mined for a number of gags and plot points, though the movie's style never really shifts to evoke the era in any meaningful way.

Another interesting thing is that ... despite a time-spanning plot, aliens, and end-of-world scenarios ... MiB 3 still felt a bit small-scale to me. There are a handful of pretty-good set piece action scenes, but there is that mid-budget 80's movie feel that permeates through the film. Some of that manifests itself in a good way. I loved the creature designs by Rick Baker and the hand-crafted feel of many of the film's aliens. Sometimes though, I kept waiting for the movie to really dazzle and wow me, when the truth is, it never really produced any true jaw-on-the-floor moments. Maybe I'm just spoiled from The Avengers, but I didn't feel like there was anything bar-raising here, and some of the designs and aesthetics served to remind you that this is a fifteen-year-old franchise that's showing some age.

MiB3 is breezy, easy fun. Jones, Smith, Brolin, and Clement carry the movie and make it plenty watchable and entertaining. Still, there's not quite enough juice to elevate J and K to the blockbuster A-list.

My Grade: B



- By all accounts, BATTLESHIP should have been a wreck, DOA from the moment it was announced that a movie was being made based on a board game with no narrative to speak of. I didn't like the idea of this movie in principle. There are enough great ideas out there that, to me, mining the world of board games for material is, truly, scraping the bottom of the barrel. And yet, maybe it was low expectations or whatever, but it turns out that I actually sort of enjoyed Battleship. It's by no means great, but it's also a perfectly acceptable Sunday afternoon sorta film that's got some genuinely entertaining bits.

Director Peter Berg and co have a pretty herculean task here - they've got to devise a story around a board game with NO NARRATIVE or aesthetic of its own whatsoever. For whatever reason, they've decided to take a cue from those other popular Hasbro icons, the Transformers, and make Battleship into a big-ass alien invasion movie. Now, the obvious knock on the movie here is that - other than a nod or two to the boardgame (peg-like missles, etc. ... seriously), everything else here feels ripped from scores of other movies, videogames, etc. Even the alien sound effects seem directly ripped from Transformers. The aliens themselves are instantly recognizable as the soldiers from the Halo games. And as for the human characters ... well, you've got every action movie cliche - from Avatar to Star Trek - in full view (in fact, our introduction to Alexander Hopper, the roguish Navy rookie played by Taylor Kitsch, is almost identical to the recent Star Trek reboot's intro of Kirk).

So yes, a lot of Battleship is generic. Super generic. But don't blame it on the actors, per se. I mean, look - Taylor Kitsch has gotten a ton of flack lately for starring in box office bombs - but he's a good actor. And he makes Hopper a far more compelling and watchable character than he had any right to be. Meanwhile, you've got Liam Neeson chewing up scenery as only he can, as the grizzled Admiral who's daughter Hopper is dating. Alexander Skarsgard as Hopper's older and more respected brother, also in the Navy. Peter MacNicol of 24 fame doing his thing as the Secretary of Defense. It's not a bad cast. Even Rihanna - she's basically fine, and she's got the tough-girl look needed to pull off a role usually played by Michelle Rodriguez. The one weak link is, certainly, Brooklyn Decker. She's got a pivotal role, and is asked to carry the load in many key scenes. Unfortunately, she just doesn't really pull it off - and so all the scenes focusing on her really, really drag. It doesn't help that her screen time consists of a rather aimless subplot where Ms. Decker is just wandering through the hills looking nervous and giving words of encouragement to a disabled former soldier who happens to be her patient.

But here's the weird thing ... Battleship really dragged for a lot of its running time, with the only highlights being some well-shot scenes of mass destruction at the hands of the aliens and their admittedly cool hi-tech weapons. But then, with about a half an hour to go, it felt like Berg and co. just threw up their hands and said "aw, screw it - let's just have some fun with this." The result is a totally preposterous yet undeniably sort-of-awesome twist that, dammit all, actually gave me chills for a moment or two. Maybe I'm just a sucker for stories about old guys having one-last-great-mission, but I fell hook line and sinker for some of the big story developments in the film's final act.

And on that note, the cool yet sorta-weird thing about Battleship is that it is really reverent of the armed forces and of the Navy. Honestly, that is one of the things that makes the movie work even when the plot gets absurd and/or lame. Berg clearly has a high level of respect for the military and for veterans, and it comes through in the film. All of the military stuff is pretty grounded and surprisingly depicted with a relatively high degree of realism. This isn't a movie about superheroes or other unlikely heroes combating aliens - it's about trained military professionals, and it keeps that fact in mind as it goes. It's a nice change of pace from seeing, say, Shia Lebouf or whoever play the annoying-loser-as-hero. So again, even amongst all the B-level alien action, this is a movie that pays a lot of homage to America's military and is very much patriotic - sincerely - in a way that most film's aren't. That too helped to make it much more endearing than it had any right to be.

That said, a nice undercurrent of patriotism and some clever twists don't a great action movie make. Like I said, it's only in the last half hour or so that business really picks up. Before that, the movie is a slog. And the characters here are just not that great. There's plenty of clunky dialogue, and the overarching plot is weak. There's also little sense of scale or scope, with the film focusing on the Navy sailors combating the E.T.'s, but barely expanding to show reactions of the general populace, the President, other nations, etc. In other words, even though it tries to emulate Independence Day, this ain't no Independence Day. The alien villains are devoid of personality and are visually unmemorable. And while the action is occasionally exciting, there's also never a great sense of internal plausibility to it. Meaning, for most of the film, the humans look to be on the verge of total decimation. Halfway through the movie, earth seems royally screwed. And not just in the usual movie way, but like, whoah, our guns do nothing against these things, they can annihilate us with one or two well-placed missles, and that's that. I guess there's such a thing as stacking the odds a little *too* high, you know?

So ultimately, Battleship is better than it might have been. As cynical as I was going in, I at least came away feeling like I'd seen a non-cynical and well-meaning action film. But you can only put so much lipstick on a pig, as they say. And in a better world, Peter Berg would be making an awesome Naval combat movie on his terms without having to include peg-shaped missiles or aliens that look like Lego playsets come to life. Still, this is a pretty harmless, fun flick, and because its heart seems to be in the right place, I'll be generous.

My Grade: B

Monday, May 28, 2012



Forget the conventional wisdom ... I am here to tell you that THE DICTATOR is hilarious. Look, we all know that with his original breakthrough, Da Ali G Show, and with subsequent spin-off movie-films Borat and (to a lesser extent) Bruno, shock-comedian extraordinaire Sacha Baron Cohen captured a unique sort of lightning in a bottle. And no, The Dictator - a fully-scripted film - lacks that same magic formula. So even when it's funny (and it's often really funny), there's not quite the same thrill as the quasi-improvised stuff that Cohen is best known for. Still, I really liked that The Dictator maintained Cohen's knack for absurdist humor, his biting satirical wit, and combined 'em with a Naked Gun-style, rapid-fire comedic style. I know, that sort of humor is out of favor these days. Today everyone wants their comedies with Apatowian levels of observational humor and heart. But The Dictator is in many ways a throwback to the silly yet fearless comedy of Mel Brooks or the Zucker Bros - completely over the top, at times a bit hit-or-miss, but definitely willing to go big-risk-for-big-reward.

The Dictator is the story of Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of a fictional Middle Eastern nation. Aladeen (Cohen), sends any who speak against him to their deaths, is secretly developing a nuclear weapons program (or trying to), and keeps a wall filled with photos of celebrities who he's coerced/bribed/paid-off to engage in sexy-times with. So yeah, Aladeen is sort of an ass. But as Cohen is apt to do, he makes even the most unlikable characters oddly endearing. And Aladeen's childlike, bumbling nature makes us sort of root for him even as he's doing very bad things.

The film sees Aladeen journey to America where he's set to address the UN. However, his scheming advisor Tamir (a stone-faced Ben Kingsley) decides to take advantage of the trip to further his own agenda. Tamir enlists one of Aladeen's doubles - originally intended to take a bullet, if necessary, for the supreme ruler - to instead take Aladeen's place at the UN. Tamir wants the double to declare that his country is now a democracy. A good thing in theory - but as we find out, Tamir is only doing this because he's in the pocket of Big Oil companies, and he may be, only slightly, the lesser of two evils. So Aladeen finds himself kidnapped by one of Tamir's agents. His beard is shaved, leaving him unrecognizable. All of a sudden, Aladeen finds himself just another American shmo.

When it's in political satire mode, The Dictator is at its best. There is some absolutely classic dialogue in this one poking fun at both dictatorships and democracies. Baron Cohen is ruthless, but he's also spot-on. The movie also has a number of obscenely funny physical and sight gags. And lots of gross-outs. Somehow, even after you think you've seen everything from Cohen, he tops himself. What I'm trying to say is, The Dictator has some of the most hilariously audacious dirty jokes you've ever seen or likely will see.

So where does The Dictator falter? I'd say the one area in which it comes up a bit short is when it focuses on the central love story between Aladeen and the new-age-girl he meets in New York named Zoey (Anna Faris). Though Faris is good as always as Aladeen's romantic foil, the scenes in which Aladeen tries his hand working at the organic grocery store owned by Zoey feel like an odd detour from the main meat of the movie. At the same time, it's a little jarring to see such a conventional movie romance in what is, otherwise, such an unconventional film. More so though, I just wanted more of Cohen as a dictator and less rom-com stuff - especially given that the romance with Zoey felt a bit forced and rushed. Again, the former seemed to be where the movie was really on its game.

The movie is just packed to the gills with great jokes though. In addition to Cohen's oddly affable Aladeen, there's a slew of talented comic actors in supporting roles. I got a huge kick, for example, out of the shenanigans of two news anchors - played by Chris Parnell and Jessica St. Clair - and their running commentary on Aladeen. The movie is also littered with quick cameos - some are hilarious (Edward Norton, for example), others seem pretty random and sort of pointless, given the top talents involved (Gary Shandling, J.B. Smoove). But back to the jokes, I love go-for-broke comedy that throws everything and the kitchen sink at you, and The Dictator does just that. The movie has enough wackiness to fill ten comedies. And there's plenty of choice material that will be quoted by comedy nerds for years to come. I know, people are quick to rag on Cohen's schtick and claim it's worn thin. But Cohen remains, to me, one of the funniest people on the planet. One of the few comic minds whose projects I will eagerly await without reservation as long as he's working.

So debate all you want the marketing tactics behind the movie. Is Cohen hurting himself by insisting on so many in-character interviews and other meta-tactics? Maybe ... but ultimately ... whatever. The guy is a comic genius. The Dictator is flawed but still very much hilarious. Go see it if you like smart, crazy, inspired comic lunacy.

My Grade: A-



- I know, I know ... everyone seems to be growing tired of the Tim Burton "brand." And part of that is likely because Tim Burton used to be less a brand, more a visionary. But, I would argue that people are being way too harsh on Burton of late. Sweeney Todd, released only a few years ago, was in my mind one of the director's best films to date. Yes, Burton had a notable creative misfire with Alice In Wonderland ... but I think that the man has produced enough great films that he deserves a little slack. And I also think this: any director who manages to create a big-budget piece of complete insanity like DARK SHADOWS deserves some admiration. I mean, this is Dark Shadows we're talking about - the strange, loopy 70's horror-soap-opera that I knew from the reruns on the Syfy channel that used to air during the day. I remember sick days in high school when I'd catch an episode or two and wonder how a show like this ever made it on the air in the first place.

What Burton tried with his film adaptation was to create a movie that mimics the pacing and storytelling style of a TV soap opera, though here the drawn-out revelations are hyper-compressed into two hours. Still, the movie has the meandering feel of a soap, with dozens of characters, all sorts of hinted-at subplots, and a general cheesiness that replicates the slightly left-of-center, almost dreamlike quality of the TV show. Of course, DS was no ordinary soap. Although stylistically it wasn't that different from a General Hospital or Days of Our Lives, the subject matter was what set it apart. Because what other soap was about an ancient vampire risen from the grave? Now, the original soap surely fell squarely into the realm of mostly-unintentional camp, but Burton tries for deliberately campy with plenty of winks and nods at the audience.

And that is where DARK SHADOWS gets into some trouble. The tone is pretty all-over-the-place, with an odd mix of out-and-out comedy, B-movie campiness, and even some soapy melodrama thrown in. Plus, this being a big Summer movie and all, Burton throws in some big, CGI-driven action, and other assorted f/x-heavy set-pieces for good measure. Whereas something like Mars Attacks was probably a bit more pure of an homage, Dark Shadows feels like it may be trying to be all things to all people - not the least of which includes the Studio overlords. This showed in the movie's marketing, which seemed similarly schizo.

That said, give some credit to Johnny Depp - he's fantastic as hundreds-year-old vampire Barnabus Collins. I really enjoyed Depp's performance in the film. Yes, we've seen him do the white-face goth thing before, but this is different ... the stately, lordly, prideful Barnabus is a unique and worthy character in the Depp cannon. Depp delivers his lines with pitch-perfect timing and appropriate gravitas and gusto, and it's a lot of fun just watching him relish the role and make it his own.

The rest of the cast is similarly good. Eva Green chews the scenery with curvaceous aplomb as Depp's witchy rival Angelique. Chloe Moretz once again proves that she is one of the best young talents in the biz, a scene-stealer as Depp's modern-day descendant. Helena Bonham-Carter is a lot of fun as the family doctor, who finds herself smitten with the revived and revitalized Barnabus. Michelle Pfeifer is also good as the Collins family matriarch, and Jackie Earle Haley is appropriately creepy as the Collins family manservant.

There are also two cameo roles in the movie that I loved. One is from the legendary Christopher Lee as an old sea captain. The other is from iconic shock-rocker Alice Cooper, playing himself. I give bonus points to anything with Alice Cooper in it, as should you.

The cast is excellent, Tim Burton's trademark knack for visual flair is on full-display (with gorgeously gothic scenery) ... so, what keeps Dark Shadows from being a great flick? I talked about tone, and again, that really puts a damper on things, along with the film's fairly limp plot. There just isn't a lot to sink one's teeth into, pun intended. The movie tells the tale of the noble vampire Barnabus' return to civilization after having been magically imprisoned for hundreds of years - buried alive by a jealous witch seeking vengeance after Barnabus gave his affections to another. Now, Barnabus finds himself a fish-out-of-water in the 1970's - both out-of-place yet ironically not *that* out of place among the garish fashions, rock n' roll pop-culture, and general weirdness of the time. Barnabus has re-emerged and reunited with the present-day Collins clan, at their ancestral manor Collinswood. The family has come upon hard times, however. The family fishing business is floundering, and a rival company (headed by Barnabus' immortal nemesis, Angelique) is helping to sink them. So Barnabus must not only navigate the 1970's, but also restore his family name and put an end to Angelique's scheming. To further complicate things, the Collins' new nanny seems to be the reincarnation of Barnabus' true love, Victoria. Once again, Angelique seeks to squash Barnabus' chances at happiness.

There's A LOT going on in the film, but only bits and pieces of it are particularly interesting. I think that having the movie take place in the 70's turned out to be an odd choice - I get that it's likely done in homage to the series, but it seems like an unnecessary layer in a movie that's already overstuffed. The movie just has a hard time keeping up its momentum. And again, it all comes back to tone. When you veer from fish-out-of-water comedy to cheesy soap-operatics to gothic horror so quickly, it's just hard to latch onto much if anything. And it means that certain parts of the film fall flat, because they feel out of left field. The love story between Barnabus and Victoria, for example, never really resonates - in particular in its modern-day incarnation where Barnabus falls for Victoria's 70's counterpart Josette. The speed with which they fall for each other feels odd and even semi-creepy, especially given how young Josette seems. And there's little to no spark between Depp and Bella Heathcoate, who plays Victoria and Josette (especially as compared to the much more heated chemistry between Depp and Green). Similarly, the whole rival fishing companies storyline seems all too mundane and dreary for this movie, and a lot of wind is taken out of the sails whenever it becomes a focus. Finally, there's one totally absurd twist towards the movie's end, involving Chloe Moretz's character, that is pretty eye-roll-inducing.

So yeah, DARK SHADOWS is a bit of a mess of a movie. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Partly because it was so shamelessly weird. And partly because it does have some glimmers of greatness - via Johnny Depp's fantastic performance, and at the times when the movie strikes a particular goth-camp tone that is its sweet spot. Is this Burton's best? Certainly not. But it's also far too early to say that this master of the macabre has lost his mojo.

My Grade: B

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Danny Says THE AVENGERS is a SMASHING Success!


- The fact that The Avengers turned out the way it did ... the fact that it even exists ... is sort of a minor miracle. The Avengers might be the most purely comic-book-y, most geek-friendly superhero movie of all time, and yet it's a mega-blockbuster, a box-office record-setter, and is coming off of a $200 million dollar plus opening weekend. If The Avengers was a comic book series about the first mission of The Avengers, it would be hailed as one of the greatest Avengers comics ever written. This is a movie jam-packed with over-the-top action and cosmic scope, and yet, overflowing with great character moments, humor, and sharp dialogue. I mean ... are you kidding me?! This isn't supposed to happen. But it did. Joss Whedon and co. pulled it off, and pulled it off big time. But let's face it: for anyone in the know, there was never any question that Joss could write and direct the hell out of an Avengers adventure if given the chance. What was and is surprising is that Marvel and Disney had the balls and the bravery and the intelligence to go ahead and let him do it. The result is a modern classic of superhero cinema. Finally, we've moved beyond the ritualistic retelling of secret origins. Finally, we've moved past the formulaic structure of and limited scope of so many superhero flicks of the last several years. With The Avengers, we finally and truly get a movie that captures the feeling of opening a Marvel comic and experiencing sensory overload from the sheer number of colorful characters and cool, far-out concepts. This is, finally, the Marvel Universe on the big-screen. And my god, it is good.

There are a lot of elements that help make The Avengers feel like it's playing on a different quality level than most other superhero movies. To preface that, I know everyone has their favorites, but personally I'd say that, prior to now, Spiderman 2 and Captain America were my favorite Marvel movies, though I've enjoyed all of the precursors to The Avengers to varying degrees. That said, what instantly makes The Avengers stand out to me is THE SCRIPT. In typical Whedon fashion, the dialogue zings by with a snappiness that is a joy. The movie's got dozens of instant-classic, memorable, quotable lines - and man, is that refreshing or what? To me, that is a MUST for a comic book movie, yet so many have had relatively flat scripts sans truly memorable dialogue moments. And I probably don't need to tell you this, but Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon's dialogue are a match made in heaven. Hearing the fast-talking Tony Stark rattle off Whedon's snarky put-downs, funny pop-cultural references, and taunts-in-the-heat-of-battle ... well, it's a thing of beauty. But the thing is ... *everyone* has great lines in this movie - the Hulk ("puny god!"), Captain America ("I get that reference!"), and so on. And everyone has great characterization to boot.

And there is the other amazing thing about The Avengers. Every. Single. Character. has their moment in the sun. The balancing act that the film pulls off is astounding. I mean, going in, I thought it was a given that there'd be some great back-and-forth between Downey's Stark and Chris Evans' Steve Rogers. But I never expected that Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow would have so many kickass scenes. I didn't anticipated that The Incredible Hulk would be a complete scene-stealer and in one fell swoop become awesome again. Tom Hiddleston's Loki is a great villain - more engaging and compelling than in Thor. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is badass and singlehandedly just raised the bar for what a TV or bigscreen Green Arrow would have to measure up to. I mean, hell, freaking Agent Coulson kicks ass in this movie! In every other Marvel movie, he's just been "that guy who's in every Marvel movie." But here, he's the man!

Sure, Whedon had the benefit of being able to play off of the characterizations established in the previous Marvel films. But still - one could go into this one not having seen 'em and still totally get it. A lot of it comes back to the script. Whedon brilliantly structures the film so as to deftly re-introduce us to each major character. He also layers in plenty of dialogue that's textured with characterization and character-building moments. He remembers that we love these heroes because of the characterization and because of their interactions with each other. He gets that that mix of clashing personalities is what makes superhero team-ups (and the inevitable infighting that results) so fun in the first place. So yes, Avengers has got balls-to-the-wall action, but the action is that much better and more satisfying because the characters are treated with such care and respect, and because the action is all predicated on their conflicts, teamwork, and personal choices. Like I said, each character has their major "whoah, watch me kick ass!" moments - but those moments are made all the more satisfying by the slow builds that lay the foundation for the epic battles. This is, quite simply, a new template for how to do superheroes right.

And of course, so much of the credit goes to the actors who make this film really come alive. I think that's another thing that makes The Avengers so remarkable - they actually pulled off the impossible dream of getting all the major A-list actors from each Marvel franchise back for this one. Egos were put aside - from both the actors and from the directors who willfully tied their films into the larger creative vision - and now we get *this.* Okay, sure, Edward Norton was out and Mark Ruffalo was in as Bruce Banner. And I did think that, man, it would have been really, really interesting to see Norton in the mix here. But Ruffalo is quite good, and he does a smart thing in that he really makes Banner his own. He's less Norton's twitchy, on-edge, version of the character. Instead, he reminded me a lot of Raylan Givens on Justified ... smiling, friendly, wryly funny ... with the anger luring underneath the surface. And it's that duality that gives us one of the film's most memorable moments, the revelation about the true nature of Banner's anger - which Ruffalo plays perfectly. But seriously, everyone is great here. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic - he just owns it as Iron Man, as good as ever if not better. How awesome is Chris Evans as Captain America? Evans blew me away with his Christopher Reeves-esque performance in the Cap movie, and he carries over that same earnestness here - and it's all the more fun now that he's in our time and part of this bigger team with a more cosmic scope than his WWII adventures. Seeing Evans' natural charisma and sense of duty slowly evolve his role into team leader is a highlight of the film.

Similarly, Chris Hemsworth as Thor continues to be awesome. The dude *is* Thor. And he 100% pulls off what is surely one of the goofiest Marvel heroes and makes him a badass. Whedon lets RDJ and others poke some fun at the guy (calling him "Legolas", among other things), but still, Hemsworth is just uber-believable. So when Thor's mighty hammer crashes into Cap's unbreakable shield, it's just a moment of pure ownage that will give fanboys chills. Jeremy Renner has only made cameos to date as Hawkeye, but look, when you get one of the best actors working today to fill the role of - let's face it - one of the more B-list members of the team, you know that the cast of your movie is stacked. Nonetheless, Renner's natural badassery is key, because Hawkeye has to work as both a believable adversary and eventual ally and equal to the other Avengers. And even though Hawkeye is ultimately just a dude with a bow-and-arrow, Renner makes him a standout and a powerhouse in his own right. Same goes for ScarJo's turn as Black Widow. Johansson always seemed a little wrong for this part to me, but by god, she's great here. She makes the Widow a strong character (thanks in no small part to Whedon, who as we all know can write the hell out of kickass female characters) - a badass combatant who also has some serious personal baggage. Did anyone going in expect that arguably the film's two best action sequences would be centered around Black Widow? No? Well, they do.

And as I alluded to, the movie is just so jam-packed with fun characters and performances, it's insane. Samuel L. Jackson is one bad motha' as always as Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. And yes, I'd like that S.H.I.E.L.D. movie now please. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston is really, really good as primary villain Loki, carried over from Thor. While Loki is less the mastermind, and more the emissary for a giant-ass alien armada that plans to invade, Hiddleston gets all the meaty badguy lines and does a great job with 'em. I was worried that Loki wouldn't be a good enough villain, having already appeared in and been defeated in THOR. But as it turns out, the combination of a cackling, scheming Loki and an evil alien army with jet-bikes, giant snake-like ships, and legions of foot-soldiers is a formidable combo indeed. Loki sort of sets things in motion, but when business picks up and the aliens invade New York, the ensuing battle is epic and just nonstop mayhem - expertly choreographed and full of momentum. I think that speaks to the fact that, hey, Joss Whedon can do action. He stages some of the most purely fun and exhilarating action sequences we've seen in a big movie like this in quite some time. I'd say that Star Wars would be an apt comparison - the level of childlike glee that Whedon clearly takes in staging the big action and maximizing all of his characters within them - it took me back to the kind of sheer immersion and kinetic energy of the OT Star Wars trilogy.

By the way, back to that cast for one minute - when you've got minor roles filled out by the likes of POWERS BOOTHE, Harry Dean Stanton, Stellan Skarsgard (reprising his role from Thor), and Gwyneth Paltrow (back as Pepper Potts), again, you know you're playing with a stacked deck. If only Mr. Boothe could have been given a bit of a bigger role ... he is just such a badass (watch Deadwood to see what I mean).

Finally, Whedon and co. just have a sense of geek-love that makes the movie feel more fun and more joyous than so much of what we've seen before in the genre. Rather than run away from the movie's colorful comic book roots, Whedon embraces them. None of that X-Men everyone-wears-matching-leather stuff here. This movie is comic book colorful, and it's great. It oozes Marvel magic. And even though the film is accessible to all, it also revels in the stuff that comic geeks love - callbacks to past continuity, the sense of a larger shared universe, the mash-up of different genres (sci-fi, fantasy, espionage) into one messy whole, and yes - the cliffhanger ending. Stay through the credits and you'll see a bonus coda that promises that future Avengers adventures may get infinitely more cosmic and grand (and stay until the very end to see a hilarious glimpse at what happens in the hours *after* the Avengers have saved the day).

So is this the perfect Marvel superhero film? Almost. It's very close. The movie does so many things right that you almost don't want to pick apart what it does wrong. And the movie is, in so many ways, a template for how to make an awesome superhero flick. And yet, narratively, I think there are a couple things that are lacking.

- As great as The Hulk is in this movie (and make no mistake, he rules it), the movie glosses over some of the character's major evolutions throughout the course of the film. Yes, it's there between the lines. But the great line that Banner says towards the end of the movie is a great line, but also doesn't explain much. It feels like a scene was cut that gave some more insight into The Hulk's eventual ability to be more in control of his rage. With a little more explanation, I think The Hulk's major behavioral shift would have felt a little less out-of-nowhere and a little more satisfying.

- I know that there's a Captain America sequel on the horizon, but I felt the movie missed a big opportunity to show the impact of America's greatest WW2 hero suddenly reappearing - and still kicking ass - in the year 2012. I kept waiting for some senior citizen (Stan Lee?) to express amazement at seeing their childhood hero back - alive, kicking, and still youthful. The movie even sets up this moment near perfectly with a great little scene where two NYPD cops ask why they should take orders from Cap.

- More fleshing out of the aliens. I loved the look and design of the alien armada - but who are they exactly and what's their deal? I know some things may carry over into a sequel, but it did feel a bit odd to have this big alien invasion be so random and seemingly motiveless. A little more backstory would have potentially gone a long way.

- Nick Fury. Sam Jackson is indeed a bad m-f'er, but probably the one character that gets a bit slighted in all this is Mr. Fury. We still haven't gotten even a glimpse of his backstory. And - I wanted at least one memorable Fury-kicking-ass moment.

- The music. Man, one of the key things that keeps this from being a true classic might just be the music. Sure, the themes are okay, but there's nothing truly iconic or memorable here. Nothing that you'll go home humming, except for the pretty-catchy Soundgarden song that accompanies the closing credits. You can't overstate how crucial the scores of franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Superman, or Batman are to the success of those series - and Avengers deserved a score on par with those films.

At the end of the day though, THE AVENGERS is quite simply a game-changer in many ways. Even if it isn't in and of itself a stone-cold classic (and maybe, over time, it will indeed be regarded as such), it personally changed what I want out of superhero flicks. It moves up past the same ol' origin stories and takes us to the next level - capturing the fun and sense of anything-can-happen wonder of the big Marvel team-up and event comics of the past and present. It's got that Lee/Kirby sense of wonderment, but also a modern slickness laced with some of the best, snappiest, and funniest dialogue we've seen in a big action blockbuster. Honestly, The Avengers makes me look at other superhero movies and movie universes and desperately want them to follow this model. As cool as it is to see director-driven movies that make serious dramas out of superheroes, ultimately they *are* superheroes - and I don't see why there's any need to be ashamed of that. The Avengers has no shame, and I say that in the best way possible. It's ultimately, in that sense, a personal movie. Because even though it's 100% mass-market pop entertainment, it's also not toned down or made more palatable for the mainstream. On the contrary, it's Joss Whedon showing us these comic book icons and saying "see, see - *this* is why these guys are so cool!".

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

SOUND OF MY VOICE is Interesting Indie Sci-Fi


- I was first made aware of SOUND OF MY VOICE - the new pseudo-sci-fi thriller from writer/actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij - at this year's Wonder-Con, where I attended a panel for the film. The panel was incredibly effective at getting all of us hyped for this under-the-radar, low-budget indie - it really was some brilliant marketing at work. Marling and Batmanglij showed us the first ten minutes of the film - which is an incredibly tense, mood-setting, eerie, and unsettling ten minutes. It's an opening that leaves you with all sorts of questions, and definitely leaves you intrigued. In those first ten minutes, we see two young journalists preparing for a potentially dangerous undercover project. They've joined a cult, in the hopes of exposing it as something dangerous and malicious. Part of that means debunking the principle on which it's founded - the notion that its leader, the mysterious and alluring woman named Maggie, is in fact a time-traveller from the year 2054. We of course understand the skepticism. But as we meet Maggie, and hear her tell her story to a group of followers in a San Fernando Valley basement, we begin to wonder: is she for real? It makes for an uber-compelling setup. And in many ways, the whole movie feels like a great premise in search of a payoff. This would be an amazing pilot episode of a TV show. As a movie, it's absorbing, hypnotic, and tension-filled, but it also feels a little thin given the potential of that initial setup.

Sound of My Voice works as well as it does thanks to a fantastic performance from Marling as Maggie. Marling is new-agey, edgy, seductive, sickly, and vaguely-dangerous. She's exactly the kind of person who could believably inspire a cult, and maybe even convince a wayward soul or two that she's some sort of messianic figure from the future, come back to save mankind from itself. Maggie can sometimes be a silly character, but the movie has an awareness of that, and plays off the absurdity of some of what she espouses to her followers. The movie is willing to laugh at itself a bit (there's a hilarious bit I won't spoil, except to say that when Maggie sings a song that's popular in the future, the result is, shall we say, surprising). It goes a long way towards the film avoiding becoming too pretentious or sliding into self-parody.

I also thought that the other two central performances were really strong. Christopher Denham is excellent as Peter - doggedly determined to expose Maggie, yet not immune to her charms. And Nicole Vicius is also quite good as Lorna, Peter's former party-girl girlfriend who goes along with his plan, but who's got some serious doubts about the whole thing. The two have a nice chemistry, laced with tension, and they bring a grounded element to the film that helps offset some of its more over-the-top ideas.

It should be noted that the movie is divided up into ten distinct chapters, with title cards separating each. Apparently this was done because the film was originally envisioned as a multi-part webseries. It works perfectly fine as a film from a pacing / flow perspective, but I did question keeping the chapter structure intact, as it took me out of the film a bit each time things were broken up by another title card. That said, the chapter breakdown means that each portion of the film ends with some sort of interesting, cliffhanger-ish exclamation point, which is pretty cool.

But while the movie maintains an edgy, intense atmosphere for its duration, the plot is pretty thin. The problem is that there's just enough plot to make for a great Twilight Zone episode. And that's really what this is, in many ways. A great Twilight Zone episode stretched out to movie length. The movie builds to an ending that is a nice, TZ-style twist, but for a movie, a TZ-twist may not be enough to pay off 90 minutes of build up. Now, clearly this is not intended as a plot-heavy movie, and so that twist is more of a bonus than anything else. But ... why set up such an intriguing premise, and then just barely explore the underlying mythology? I didn't need a lot, but all the future / time-travel stuff is talked about only in such vague terms that it leaves you hungry for something, anything to sink your teeth into (for example: it's mentioned that the hippie dude who first found and saved Maggie was out seeking time-travellers and recognized her as one when he found her - um, what? please explain!). Psychologically, the movie does better - with some really effective - and at times disturbing - scenes of the group-think and submissiveness that permeates Maggie's cult. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, the film manages to disturb you precisely because the trappings of the cult are relatively mundane. The people in it seem somewhat normal, just slightly off and spiritually hungry. Still, because Peter and Lorna are "undercover", we don't have a real entry-point into the cult or an understanding of why its actual members were drawn to it. And that is an issue, because we end up only viewing Maggie's group with the same detachment and skepticism as Peter and Lorna. I mentioned Martha Marcy May Marlene, and that movie was so brilliant in part because it took us inside the head of someone who was suckered into and drawn towards a cult. So even though Brit Marling paints Maggie as a charismatic and psychologically manipulative figure, we still have a lot of questions about who the people are who legitimately follow her, and why.

All in all, I enjoyed SOUND OF MY VOICE, and it's always cool to see a low-budget movie with a unique voice and some far-out ideas. Certainly, Marling has shown herself as an independent-minded filmmaker who isn't afraid to shake up her psychologically-driven indie flicks with some sci-fi high-concepts. I like that, and it's something I'd love to see more of. Ultimately though, the film never seems to fully take advantage of its cool premise. For that reason, it feels like an exercise or experiment in low-budget genre filmmaking, more so than it feels like a fully-formed movie. It made me wonder what Marling and her crew could do with a big budget, or in a different format like a serialized TV show. How interested they are in that sort of thing though, I don't know. For now, they seem content making these interesting little what-if? stories. When those stories - flaws and all - turn out this interesting and tension-filled though, it's hard to fault them.

My Grade: B+