Category: Movie Reviews

Movie Review – MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS

Published May 10, 2012

After spending four years setting us up with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America – with savvy post- credit teasers in each, reminnding us The Avengers Initiative was underway – Marvel Pictures have finally assembled their Avengers and released them on a voracious public already a’drool with anticipation. This team of big muscles and even bigger egos, have been thrown together in a film that could have been (and should have been) a train wreck of superheroic proportions.  That it works on so many different levels is a testament to Marvel’s visionary creative team, a cast that compliments each other (even when they’re at each other’s throats), and a writer/director who obviously knows his iconic characters, as well as how to bounce them (quite literally) off of each other.  Simply put: Marvel’s The Avengers is spectacularly entertaining, MORE than the sum of its parts, and hands down the best “ensemble” comic book movie ever made.

The plot does assume that you’ve seen all of the previous films but, even if you haven’t, shouldn’t be that hard to decipher.  Loki, Thor’s adopted brother, comes to Earth via the Tesseract – that glowing cube used by Johann Schmidt/ Red Skull in Captain America – and immediately starts either killing those he meets, or enslaving them with his glowing staff.  Loki (Tom Hiddleston – who for some reason is MUCH better, and more threatening here than he was in Thor) wants to subjugate Earth and rule over its inhabitants as King.  An alien being known as The Other, has charged Loki with bringing him the Tesseract, and in return, promises him an army of Chitauri (basically reptilian badasses) to assist him in conquering Earth.

What is one to do? Especially if one is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)?  Answer: assemble the Avengers.

That this team does come together to fight this global threat is a given.  That they spend the first two thirds of this film fighting each other is unexpected, a pleasure, and seriously ups the ante of the original threat.  Can these notorious loners ever put aside their egos long enough to form an alliance?  Well, Iron Man and Thor have egos …

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is still a corn-fed boy scout, a man very much out of time (he doesn’t get a lot of the modern-day references thrown at him, but it’s funny when he DOES), and someone who still very much acts like the patriotic, nerdy-but-buff World War II badass that he is.  That he eventually takes charge of this team (and that the others LET him do this) is a pleasure to watch.  (Also, if you ever wondered what would happen if Thor’s Hammer met Captain America’s shield … wonder no more.)

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is still as narcissistic as you want him to be, and his quips about the others are some of the funniest in this film.  I don’t want to spoil any of them, but I can’t resist quoting at least a couple.  For instance, he refers to Thor as both “Point Break” and “Shakespeare in the Park,” and at one point asks him, “Dost thou mother know you weareth her drapes? ”  Now THAT’s funny!  RDJ knows this role quite well by now (he is much better here than he was in IM2, thanks to Whedon’s script), and seems to have been anticipating this film as much as the rest of us.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t show up for the first 40 minutes or so, but when he does, when this film finally starts letting these disparate characters bounce off each other (and BOUNCE they do), this film kicks into gears you didn’t even know it had.  When this hammer-swinging, lightning-charged, Asgardian God of Thunder (who does look like he should rideth a surf board) first shows up, ready to kicketh his brother’s ass, his struggle is made that much more powerful by the fact that we know he still loves his brother.  And speaking of Loki …

Tom Hiddleston (if I didn’t say this before) is a much bigger threat than he was in last year’s first Thor film.  He seemed kind of wimpy in that movie to me, but here, with a new glint in his eye, an evil smile (to rival Jack Torrance, the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange), and a longish flip-style haircut, he literally oozes charismatic menace.  Especially when he is holding hundreds of people hostage, and threating to kill them if they do not “kneel before him.”  Whether or not Whedon meant to remind us of General Zod in Superman II (it reminded me of this), the line fits Loki, and he seethes it with perhaps even better venom than Terence Stamp did over 30 years ago.

Jeremy Renner is fine as master archer Hawkeye (though he is under Loki’s control for a good chuck of this film), and Scarlett Johansson is equally good as Black Widow (in fact she is MUCH better here than she was in IM2).  Originally I wondered why these two were included in this incarnation of The Avengers (weren’t four enough), but after viewing the film, I actually couldn’t imagine this story without them.

As for Bruce Banner and the Hulk (and yes, I saved this for last on purpose), after middling returns and critical apathy for 2003’s Hulk with Eric Bana, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton, Marvel decided to reboot this character one more time for The Avengers.  The choice of indie- actor Mark Ruffalo may have been a head-scratcher to most, but this is casting know-how at its most savvy.  Ruffalo makes for the most satisfying Doctor Banner since Bill Bixby portrayed the character on TV in the 1970s and 80s.  In fact, Bruce Banner in this movie, with his humble mannerisms, genius IQ, and knowing sense of humor, is just as compelling as his green- skinned counterpart.  He takes a joke well (love it when Tony Stark pokes Banner in the side, and immediately peers into his eyes to see if they change), and has finally learned how to (somewhat) control the Hulk.  When he does make the change, he is also capable of more than just thoughtless rage.  I wouldn’t call this a thinking man’s Hulk, but he is definitely smarter, funnier, and knows how to both smile for the camera and knock someone out of a snapshot.  Also, thanks to brilliant CGI, this Hulk actually looks like Ruffalo, which helps immensely in identifying this creature as the dark id of someone we care about.  The audience with which I saw The Avengers cheered more than once when the Hulk worked his magic.  Especially when dealing with Loki.  This movie was already a huge pleasure, but watching the Hulk steal it made it even more so.

As a fan of the films leading up to this, I had pretty high expectations.  That those expectations were not only met, but exceeded, is pretty amazing.  Writer/director Joss Whedon (already having a pretty good year with the critically-lauded the Cabin in the Woods) proves he was not only the man for the job, but possibly the only man for the job.  He has crafted a film that is intelligent, funny, emotional, action-packed, and chock full of all the summer tentpole movie goodness that audiences could want.  And then some.

After a record-shattering opening, this film is already a smash hit.  Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.  (The folks over at DC have got to be crapping bricks at this point, trying to figure out how to get a Justice League movie going.)   All I know for sure is that this film is supremely entertaining, and I plan on seeing it again soon.

If I haven’t made my point yet, The Avengers is a relief, a wonder, and (yes) a marvel.

MOVIE GRADE: A

The Cabin in the Woods – movie review

Published April 15, 2012

Where does one begin to write a spoiler-free review of The Cabin in the Woods? How can I encapsulate this story – frankly, the most original, funny, and entertaining horror movie I have seen in years – when half of its charm is in the discovery itself. I don’t know, but here I go.

The Cabin in the Woods starts in verrrry familiar territory, as five attractive young people pile into a camper and head into the wild to spend the weekend at the titular location. These five are archetypical: Curt the jock (Chris Hemsworth), Jules the slut (Kristen Connolly), Holden, the sensitive smart guy (Jesse Williams), Marty the stoner (Fran Kranz), and Dana the virgin (Anna Hutchinson). The disparity of these personalities is part of the joke: birds of a feather generally do flock together, unless of course a film needs a rather motley crew to bounce interestingly off one another as in The Breakfast Club.

We’ve been here many times before, especially in the 1980s – whether in the Friday the 13th films, or Sleepaway Camp, or, most notably, in Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead movies. TCITW pays homage to all of those, and then some, but doesn’t beat us over the head with too many obvious pop culture references. There are nods to previous horror films, to be sure, but many are so geek specific that if you DO get one of the obscure allusions, you will probably feel pretty special, or hip, or geeky … you know … like the other two people laughing in the theater because they got that joke, too.  The film plays on our awareness of horror film tropes (especially what may lurk in a dark cellar), but does so with style and intelligence, without letting the joke spoil the suspense. While the Scream films of the 90s brought a hip awareness to their slasher proceedings, TCITW goes infinitely further in turning its own genre on its head. And boy is that putting it mildly it mildly.

This film goes places I not only did not see coming, but that I have never seen in a film of this type. I spent the first half trying to figure out the mystery of what was going on. Why DO we keep cutting away to those guys in ties (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who damn near steal the movie), who work at a facility that may or may not be doing some high tech surveillance work? This is not a spoiler – the movie opens with this dorky duo. In fact, for the first few minutes, I thought I had walked into the wrong theater.  By the second half, I was watching in slack-jawed awe, saying to myself, Holy shit, are we really going THERE? Only to discover that not only are we going there, we are going well beyond THERE. Where is THERE, you ask? No place you don’t want to go – you just don’t know it yet.  But, the less you know about that … hell, the less you know about the entire movie, the better.

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it goes to the next logical place that you never thought of. There isn’t a Big Twist Ending pasted on at the end – no Shyamalamadingdong here. From the opening frame to the last, this film’s complex plot is well thought out and slowly revealed. And how often does THAT happen in a horror film? Or IS it a horror film? Or a deconstruction of a horror film? Or is it science fiction? Or … I’ve said too much already.

Joss Whedon (co-writer and producer) and Drew Goddard (co-writer and director) have both come a long way from their days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And with this one film, announce to the world that they are forces with which to be reckoned. To date, this is the only film Goddard has directed, and even this has sat on a shelf since 2009, after MGM filed for bankruptcy. That may have been providential as … none of the five visitors who go to the TCITW was a known name in 2009. Cut to three years later and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is on top of the world – especially with the imminent release of The Avengers. His name may draw some viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a horror film, but strong word of mouth will (hopefully) do the rest. Needless to say, 2012 is going to be a banner year for both Hemsworth and Whedon, who wrote and directed The Avengers. (Banner year for the Hulk, too, HA!)

Oddly enough, if there is a breakout performance in this film, it is not Hemsworth (though he is fine). It is Fran Kranz as Marty. Normally the “stoner” archetype in movies like this is played strictly for laughs or is portrayed as an annoying buffoon. Not so here. Marty does provide comic relief (his travel coffee mug is classic), but he may also be the wisest of all the visitors to this cabin. The Stoner Sage – haven’t had one of those on our screens since Jeff Bridges donned a robe, flip flops, and a White Russian. Also, if anyone ever decides to make a biopic of Dennis Hopper, Fran is your man.

If TCITW does well at the box office, of course the producers will want a sequel. Or (shudder) a prequel. But I don’t think this is franchise material. I can’t say so without giving anything away, but I would be happy if this was simply the brilliant stand alone feature that it is, towering over its milked-to-death predecessors.

Three things regarding the trailer for TCITW: One – nothing in the trailer made me want to see this film. I went because the buzz on it has been out of the stratosphere. Two – the trailer at once tells too much, and not enough. The same damn trouble I am having trying to write an enticing, yet spoiler-free review. Three – don’t watch the trailer. I know some of you won’t be able to resist (that’s why I am not posting it here), but trust me, if you can possibly see this movie without ANY foreknowledge save what I’ve written here, DO SO.

Yes, it is only April, but The Cabin in the Woods is fresh, funny, original, intelligent, and the best time I’ve had at the movies so far in 2012. For the rest of this year’s films, regardless of genre, the bar has been set high.

MOVIE GRADE: A-

 

THE HUNGER GAMES – movie review

Published March 24, 2012

Having finished reading The Hunger Games only hours before seeing the film version, I’m not sure I am qualified to accurately assess this film.  Yes, this was quite the immersive experience, but having just screened a beautiful version of the story in my noggin, how could any film hope to live up to the theater of my mind?  Especially since this cult-hit novel, the first of a trilogy, is written in the first-person narrative of its heroine Katniss Everdeen, and MUCH of the plot and character motivations are explained through this brave girl’s inner monologue.  Since books and films are apples and oranges (and they are), how am I to make sense of either with this fruit salad in my head?  Well, here goes anyway …

The Hunger Games (as if you didn’t already know) takes place in a dystopian future of unspecified date, in a country, Panem, that used to be the United States, made up of the Capital and 12 fenced-in Districts.  Every year, two “tributes,” one boy and one girl, ages 12-18, are chosen from these Districts to compete in a television show called The Hunger Games.  This “reality show” – created by the government to remind the people of its ultimate power, and to discourage any “uprisings” – is actually a brutal fight to the death with only one contestant named victor.

Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl from District 12, is horrified when she sees that her little sister has been chosen for The Hunger Games, and instead offers herself as Tribute.  This annual lottery (referred to here as a “Reaping,” lest any Shirley Jackson fans cry foul) is also televised, and Katniss’ unheard of self-sacrifice is seen by countless masses.  Her influence on those masses begins even then.  The other contestant chosen from District 12 is a boy named Peeta, who has (of course) had a crush on Katniss since they were children.  That they will soon be thrust into an arena where they will become mortal enemies makes for no small amount of suspense.

I will not spoil any more.  I loved the book (as of this writing I am halfway through Book II), and I really liked the movie.  But – and here we go again – I’m not sure I can be completely unbiased writing this review.  As I said, Suzanne Collins’ novel is written in the first person narrative of Katniss, and this immediacy (made all the more so by its present tenseness), makes for an incredibly vivid mind movie.  More importantly, much of the actual “Games” in the book fly by with no dialogue whatsoever.  This would, seemingly, make an adaptation even easier, as “pure cinema” can do its work.  Yet this is not the case.  It is Katniss’ silent reasonings which lend a great amount of intelligence to these otherwise visceral proceedings.  That uneasy balance of acumen and agility is one of the novel’s major strengths.  It moves at a clip, but always keeps you thinking, not to mention emotionally invested in the characters.  How often do novels pull off that triple threat?  If the movie, directed by Gary Ross (screenwriter of Big, and writer/director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit), has any major fault, it is losing that inner monologue.  But aside from having Katniss do a voice over (which would not have worked), I’m not sure anything else could have been done.  Books are generally a 10-20 hour experience.  Movies, a 2-3 hour one.  Something’s got to go.  In the case of The Hunger Games, it’s just a shame that what has to go is our main character’s inner dialogue as it was absolutely a huge part of the novel’s charm, and the method by which ALL of the plot was delivered.  I knew while reading that any film would have to lose this, and that the loss would be hard to overcome, but …

Okay, one glaring example of why this loss hurts the film:

BEGIN SPOILER

When Katniss is in the cave with Peeta, and kisses him, the novel makes it absolutely clear that she is only “putting on a show” for the cameras, giving the audience what they want so she can earn their sponsorship and their gifts, like food and medicine.  In the film, Katniss doesn’t even look around for cameras, she just plants one on Peeta, which seems quite out of character.  Sure, after a pot of broth is soon delivered via parachute with a note from Haymitch which says, “You call that a kiss?”, we are meant to assume that Katniss knows she is always being watched, but … a little glance around the cave for the hidden cameras would have cleared up a lot.

END SPOILER

All that aside, The Hunger Games DOES work on film.  From the extreme poverty of the Districts, to the shimmering gaudiness of the Capital, everything old seems new again.  As for the cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class) is pitch perfect as Katniss.  Even missing that aforementioned inner monologue, Lawrence does much with simple, silent, old fashioned emoting.  While being groomed and trained for these deadly Games, Katniss is lavished with food, clothes, and other riches by the producers.  Her horror and disgust at such opulence in the face of such disregard for human life are subtly written on her features, yet not so much as to give herself away.  There IS a show to put on, after all, and a game to be played – a game of wits as much as a game of brutality.  The penalty for not playing along will endanger not only Katniss, but all those from her District.  Yes, Jennifer Lawrence is a big part of why this film works.

Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Bridge to Terabithia) plays Peeta, and does fine with what little he has been given to work with.  He is certainly given more character development than the other 22 contestants, whose backgrounds (save for Rue) are as disposable as their lives.  Make no mistake, people DO die in this movie.  Kids are brutally murdered in as explicit a manner as a PG-13 rating will allow.

Before I continue with the rest of the cast, I must stop here to point out the extreme irony (and perverse joy) that I find in the fact that a story THIS dark, a story this Orwellian, has resonated with today’s young people.  Kudos to author Suzanne Collins for not only seeing that it could be done, but for just doing it.  What the novel lacks in originality (MUCH more on that shortly), it makes up for with raw emotion, visceral action, intelligent plotting, and good old chutzpah.

Anyway, on with the supporting cast.

Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable as Games escort Effie Trinkett, whose garish costumes and make-up perfectly mirror the horrific superficiality of the Capital.  Stanley Tucci is equally over-the-top as blue-haired, bright-toothed Games host Caesar Flickerman – imagine Dick Clark on acid.  Lenny Kravitz, the most normal of this bunch, plays it straight as Katniss’ stylist Cinna – his genuine concern for the girl speaks volumes about his true loyalties.  Donald Sutherland is deliciously creepy as the duplicitous President Snow – he is as smooth and charming as a snake.  Finally, and my personal favorite of the supporting cast, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, mentor and trainer to Katniss and Peeta.  Haymitch, who also hails from District 12, was a Hunger Games victor 25 years earlier.  In the years since, has become a cynical recluse – a hermit who likes his drink as much as he does his solitude.  Though Haymitch initially seems to have nothing but contempt for this most recent batch of Tributes, his heart eventually shows through the guile.

I’m not sure how a story can seem original and derivative at the same time, but The Hunger Games, both novel and film, pulls off this trick nicely.  Many other similar stories come to mind: Stephen King’s The Running Man and The Long Walk (both written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) each deal with dystopian societies – the former about a futuristic game show with a fight to the death, the latter about teenagers involved in a walking contest where the winner is the last one standing, and the losers (who can’t keep pace) are shot dead.  Logan’s Run, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451, Rollerball, V for Vendetta, The Lottery, THX 1138 (the government guards in the film version of The Hunger Games look like they stepped right out of George Lucas’ first film), The Truman Show, The Most Dangerous Game, and (back to Stephen King again) The Dark Tower.  All these classic stories and more come to mind whilst reading and watching The Hunger Games.  Well, I guess I could add reality TV fare like Survivor and American Idol into that mix.  Given such a mulligan stew of influence, that The Hunger Games, both book and film, can be so grandly entertaining is pretty remarkable.  That young people (perhaps not so familiar with these other sources) find it so captivating is … quite encouraging.  Perhaps they will seek out these other works and learn to appreciate them as well.

Make no mistake: this is dark material, made light by the humanity of our plucky heroine.  Katniss Everdeen is a much better role model for teenage girls than Twilight’s Bella Swan, simply because, even at age 16, she is her own person, she is not defined by the men in her life, is smart, crafty, a helluva good aim with that bow, and is willing to lay down her life for her family.  Walking contradiction though she is – warrior and pacifist, revolutionary and teenage girl – Katniss Everdeen (and the legions of young people who have embraced her) have given me a renewed hope for the future.  Funny what a little dystopia, and the uprising against such, can do to pick up one’s day.

MOVIE GRADE: B+

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – review

Published July 25, 2011

As far as summertime movie entertainment is concerned, 2011 is turning out to be MARVELous.  (As opposed to DClicious – Green Lantern is apparently a stinker, though I have not seen it.)  X-Men: First Class was far better than it had any right to be; THOR accomplished two things: setting up next year’s Avengers movie and turning Chris Hemsworth into a star; and the latest entry, Captain America, is a rousing return to the type of Hollywood movies that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, and hasn’t for decades.

While this origin story could have been a by-the-numbers cheese-fest, Marvel Studios wisely chose its director with the same care they took in choosing Kenneth Branaugh to helm THOR, thereby giving that film an appropriate Shakespearean grandeur.  Joe Johnston (who won an Academy Award for his special effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and who would go on to direct such effects-laden films as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and Jurassic Park III), is the PERFECT person to bring the story of sickly Steve Rogers and his transformation into Captain America to the Big Screen.  Why?  His association with two of those aforementioned titles, Raiders and The Rocketeer (both of which I will make comparisons to throughout this review) makes him indeed the only person who could have pulled off what this film achieves.  Namely, an understanding of what makes an adventure set in the 1930s or 40s WORK.

While Captain America could have been (and by all rights should have been) a corny, embarrassing, CGI-heavy yawn-fest, Johnston does the unexpected, he EMBRACES those cornpone ideas and runs with them.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those that don’t know the story (and I will try to be as spoiler-free here as possible), Captain America starts out as a 98-pound weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who, while having the physique of a kitten, has the heart of a tiger.  That physique, as you have probably seen in the trailers, is something worth mentioning.  I’m not sure what kind of digital trickery enables the filmmakers to make Evans so short and skinny (reports say it is NOT Benjamin-Button-like head replacement), but the effect is seamless … save for one thing: Evans VOICE is still that of a hearty man.  They should upped the tone of it a bit, or shaved some pounds off his larynx while they were at it.  Other than that, the effect is astonishing, and Evans spend a good portion of the film looking this way.

Rogers wants nothing more than to join the Army and defend his country against the Nazis.  (Is there a more perfect brand of villain for this type of story?  Indiana Jones is not the only person who “hates these guys.”)  Unfortunately, his size makes him unfit for service.  At least to everyone except Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci in a touching performance), who is developing a Super Soldier serum, and who is looking for an ideal candidate upon which to test his concoction.  Said perfect candidate is someone who truly appreciates power and strength, and who considers compassion and kindness the greatest of virtues.  This movie does indeed champion the little guy.

After Rogers is selected for these experiments, and becomes the tall, buff, super-powered, titular character, the Army decides that he is still better suited to work as an enlistment figure than to work on the battlefield.  And it is in THIS section of the film that the unexpected takes over.  Adorned in an early (read corny and cheap) red, white, and blue costume, Rogers struts across USO stages replete with dancing girls to the strains of an Alan Menken-penned tune entitled Star Spangled Man.  Nobody BUT director Johnston would have dared to stage these sequences with such corny aplomb, but that is precisely what makes them work.  The corniness is not only acknowledged, but embraced.  It works brilliantly in not only setting the tone of this film, but in setting it apart from other comic book movies.  Only the director of 1991’s similarly-set The Rocketeer could make this work so well.

It is said that heroes are only as good as their villains, and this film boasts a good one.  (Or should I say a BAD one?)  Hugo Weaving is Johann Schmidt, the soldier in charge of Hitler’s weapons division, who had much earlier also been subject to the same Super Soldier serum as Rogers.  The serum had not yet been perfected when he used it on himself, and thus turned him into Captain America’s nemesis, Red Skull.  Weaving chews the scenery with the best of them, and his crimson-headed make-up is remarkable.

Offering fine support here is Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips, who is understandably suspicious of Rogers, but eventually won over by the young man’s courage.  The grenade scene changes everything.  Jones can do this kind of role in his sleep, though he is quite awake here, and the character does bring to mind his Oscar-winning role from The Fugitive.

English actress Hayley Atwell plays US Officer Peggy Carter, the woman who wins Rogers heart.  Carter is much more than just a bimbo who needs rescuing, and the fact that she is British is just one more unexpected plot point in a story filled with them.

Dominick Cooper plays Howard Stark (Tony’s father), an engineer and inventor, who, like Howard Hughes, is all about flying machines and the ladies.  (Howard Hughes was also a featured character in The Rocketeer.)

But this is Chris Evans’ show, and while some may have been concerned that the actor was too much of a wisecracking hipster to play a nerdy-but-sincere soldier who is more of a cornfed boy scout than Clark Kent (see, or DON’T see, his performance as Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four), Evans SELLS this story with sincerity and aw shucks charm.

The production design is beautiful, and the costumes, especially Captain America’s red, white, and blue duds, look fantastic.  That latter could have been a disaster, but the suit looks great (the grayish dusting helps a lot), and Evans looks great in it.

It is also worth mentioning that the score by Alan Silvestri (who has done the music for all of Robert Zemekis’ films, including the Back to the Future series) is a rousing, patriotic, fist pumping, boot stomping success – John Philip Sousa on steroids.

We have seen so many comic book origin stories over the last few years, that most have a caul of been-there, done-that hung over them.  Director Johnston is quite aware of this, and tries to change things up at every opportunity.  He mostly succeeds in this.  Mostly.  Oddly enough, frequent-but-subtle nods to the film’s nostalgic forbearers (The Rocketeer and the Indy films, especially Raiders and The Last Crusade) help greatly with this problem.  Go figure.

The film ends in a manner that sets up the final domino for next summer’s The Avengers, which, according to the teaser trailer for it that appears after this film’s credits, looks terrific.  I am only disappointed that Captain America’s further exploits will not take place during World War II, but here in our present.  (I would explain, but I promised no spoilers.)  If Marvel Studios can truly pull off teaming up Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk for The Avengers (loved the tagline during the teaser trailer: Some Assembly Required), then we are all in for a supersized treat next year.

Captain America could SO have been bad, but in embracing the corniness of the story, the cliffhanger thrills of the 1930s, and the big band music of the 1940s, director Johnston gives us one of the most enjoyable films of the summer.

GRADE: B+

SUPER 8 – movie review

Published June 12, 2011

I was 14-years old in 1979, a total film and book geek, and had recently discovered two storytellers whose tales both wooed and wowed me: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.  After the one-two punch of Jaws and Close Encounters, any new Spielberg film was cause for anticipation and excitement.  Likewise after reading The Shining and The Stand, I was hooked on All Things King.  These men both told fantastic tales, but their characters – often children from broken or abusive homes – were rooted in reality.  As I came from a similar background, their stories not only thrilled me, but made me realize that I was not alone in my trials.  They provided me with amusement, inspiration, and escape.  For this I loved them both, and still do to this day.

Cut to 30 years later.  When I first heard that JJ Abrams was writing and directing a movie entitled Super 8, which was to be an homage to the early films of Spielberg, I felt that old excitement blossom inside.  JJ grew up during the same period as I, and was obviously enamored of both of these storytellers.  (Abrams’ King obsession can be found in his TV series Lost, which he claims was based on King’s The Stand, and though he was long involved in bringing King’s Dark Tower series to the big screen, he recently gave up that ghost to Ron Howard.)

Having just seen Super 8, I can tell you that whatever expectations I had for this film were not only met, but exceeded.

The year is 1979, and 14-year-old Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) just lost his mother in an steel mill accident.  Joe’s father (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy sheriff, is also trying to get over this tragedy.  Joe is a film geek (his room is replete with film posters and monster models), and is helping his friends shoot a Super 8 zombie movie.  While they are shooting scenes at a local train station, the unthinkable happens, and a train crashes into it in spectacular fashion (… making the iconic train wreck in The Fugitive look quaint by comparison).  Afterward, something pummels its way out of one of the train cars – something huge, and powerful, and pissed off.  What could it be?

All of this can be gleaned from the trailer – no spoilers here – but what this train is carrying is much less important than the wounded characters who are affected by it.  There is even a love story here.  A first love story, as Joe slowly falls for the ingenue of their zombie movie, played to innocent perfection by Elle Fanning – soon to not only be known as Dakota’s little sister.  Their relationship is sweet, complicated, and is really the heart of this movie.  So is the severely damaged relationship between their fathers, but I will not spoil that here.

Nor do I want to spoil anything else, so I will focus on what this film is obviously trying to do.  And that is pay homage to early Spielberg, and yes, Stephen King, too.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the two aforementioned Steves should both be a’blush with this high profile release.  Super 8 brings to mind such Spielberg-directed films as Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T.; such Spielberg-produced films as Gremlins and The Goonies; and such King titles as Stand By Me and IT.  (I might throw a dash of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant in there, too.)  It succeeds in giving nods to these other works, while also carving out its own path.

I have read some scathing comments from those pesky internet haters (you know who you are) who despised this film, and called it a rip-off.  This is to completely miss the point.  (Hell, even Chuck Berry, whose classic rock and roll riffs have been blatantly “sampled,” is wont to say “There is nothing new under the sun,” for he had “sampled” them, too.)

I went to Super 8 hoping for a bit of the magic rush that I felt when I was a teenager going to, I’ll say … Raiders of the Lost Ark.  As I write this article (June 12, 2011), it is, ironically enough, exactly 30 years to the day that Raiders was released – I was likely one of the first in line that day.  And yes, it was magic (but you knew that).  Does Super 8 live up to its admittedly risky ambition?  Yes, it does.  It is not as good as those films it seeks to emulate – how could it be? – but as a nostalgia piece, it works brilliantly.  Having Spielberg himself as one of the producers on this movie certainly didn’t hurt.

Let me add a few words about JJ Abrams.  After coming to fame as a screenwriter (Regarding Henry, Forever Young, JoyRide), and a successful foray into television (Alias, Felictiy, Lost), JJ made his leap into feature film directing with 2006’s Mission Impossible III – which I actually thought was the best of that series.  In 2009, he rebooted Star Trek and, though that film had some pretty big loopholes in logic, I really enjoyed it as well.  If you look back over those titles, it is fairly obvious that JJ is all about formula.  However, it’s a REALLY GOOD formula, and he is getting better at mixing it up all the time.  Said formula is all about balancing emotional beats with action and bombast, and with Super 8 he gets that mixture more right than ever before.  This film is not perfect – it left some questions unanswered and some plot holes unfilled – but in simply trying to do a dance mix on some old favorites, it succeeds in spades.  It does have a beat, and you can dance to it.  This is JJ Abrams’ best film.

So, in fine, if you are burnt out on superheroes and sequels, long for a more innocent brand of filmmaking, and would like to revisit a simpler time (you know, when a text was something in a book, and a tweet was something a bird did), Super 8 is the ticket.

Oh, and make sure you stay through the end credits for a final reel-ization of this film’s title – it literally had the audience with which I saw this film cheering and applauding.  Recommendations don’t come much higher than that.

GRADE: A-

Russell Brand’s remake of ARTHUR – does it stand up to the original classic?

Published April 11, 2011

In September of 2009, while writing an article expressing my displeasure at the shoddy, pan-and-scan DVD of Dudley Moore’s Arthur (other than Blu-Ray, still the only one available), and trying to get an upgrade for what is arguably one of the funniest movies ever made, I noted that a remake had been rumored, starring Russell Brand.  I was appalled at this news at the time, and said something like, “Moore, Gielgud and [writer/director] Gordon are rolling over in their graves at this news.”

After seeing the movie, I may need to amend that statement.

I also stated in that previous article that …

If one takes into account the “laugh quotient” while considering the funniest movie of all time, certainly one of the top contenders would have to be 1981’s Arthur.  Bravo places it at number 10 on their list of the 100 Funniest Movies, AFI has it at a criminally-low 53.  This Dudley Moore vehicle has more genuine laughs-per-minute than most modern comedies put together.

I stand by that – Arthur (1981) is a text book example of how to write a comedy.  Dudley Moore himself, after reading the script, said that most comedies have about one laugh every ten pages, but that Steve Gordon’s Arthur script was exactly the opposite: ten laughs per page.  Dudley got the sweetness, innocence, and childlike nature of Arthur, which made him utterly lovable despite his incessant drinking.

My main two concerns going into the remake were:

1) How do you make a movie about a drunken billionaire playboy searching for love and still make the guy likeable … especially when he is not Cuddly Dudley?  Could Russell Brand give Arthur the same kind of boyish innocence and sense of fun even while being constantly besotted?

2) The original Arthur script was damn near perfect – how do you update it without screwing it up?

Though critics have generally lambasted this new version of Arthur (it currently has a 25% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes), based on an interesting trailer, I found myself oddly looking forward to seeing it, and wanting very badly for it to be good.

So is it?  Surprisingly shockingly, yes.  It is.

If a remake had to be made, Russell Brand is the only one to fill Arthur Bach’s expensive shoes.  Perhaps the ribald British comic is an acquired taste (hence the critical roasting), but I find him charming, charismatic, and very funny.  Russell is obviously a fan of Dudley Moore and the original film, as his drunken speech patterns here are greatly based on Moore’s, which helps this movie a lot.  (Even Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was a cross between Keith Richards and Dudley Moore’s Arthur.)  Russell pretty much nails it here, and this good-but-flawed remake rides a looooong way on his charm.  (I would like to think that those who don’t like Brand would be converted by this performance … but given some of the curiously hateful reviews, this is probably not the case.)

As for the script by Peter Baynham, it keeps the skeleton of the original story, without copying it line for line.  Which actually works in its favor as much of the 1981 version’s dialogue was based around the diminutive stature of Dudley Moore:

Uncle Peter: Grow up, Arthur.  You’ll make a fine adult.
Arthur: That’s easy for you to say, you don’t have 50 pairs of short pants hanging in your closet!

Oddly enough, what lines do make it from the original are generally more serious in nature.

Yes, Russell Brand is quite good as Arthur – this is unquestionably his best role to date – but he has fine support here, too.

Helen Mirren shines as Hobsen, Arthur’s nanny.  While changing the sex of Hobsen from male to female seemed a strange choice (John Gielgud won an Oscar for his fantastically droll and sarcastic performance in the original), this switcheroo works in the remake’s favor.  It somehow helps Arthur be more sympathetic.

Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) at first seems a strange choice to play the Liza Minelli role (the character’s name has changed from Linda to Naomi), but as the lawbreaking, poor girl from Queens who steals Arthur’s heart, she is oddly likable.  Greta gives Naomi a sardonic wit which is utterly endearing, and usually punctuated by a goofy-but-sexy grin.

Jennifer Garner as Susan Johnson, the girl Arthur’s family wants him to marry or he will be cut off from nearly a billion dollars, has much more to do here than the original’s Jill Eikenberry.  Instead of merely being a milquetoast, Garner’s Susan is a manipulative, power hungry shrew.  The change works.

Nick Nolte is a perfect fit as Susan’s father, Burt Johnson, who is just plain psychotic.

This movie, not surprisingly, tries to deal a bit more responsibly with Arthur’s drinking.  While the original kind of downplayed the seriousness of alcoholism, it could be argued that neither incarnation of this character is officially alcoholic.  Or, if he is, at least he is an unfailing happy drunk.

First time director Jason Winer does a good job of balancing the humor and pathos here – which couldn’t have been easy given the subject matter.

No, Arthur 2011 is not as funny as the original – how could it be?  But it rides a long way on a tried and true story, and the mischievous charm of Russell Brand.  It also makes great use of an obviously bigger budget, as when Arthur rents out Grand Central Station for an hour so he can woo Naomi with dinner for two.  A few of the jokes here fall flat, but a surprising number hit the mark – they seem tailor-made for Brand, which stands this film on its own feet.

I was pleasantly surprised by the new Arthur, and look forward to the day when it can sit comfortably next to the original on my DVD shelf.

That’s coming quite a ways from my remarks about Moore, Gielgud, and Gordon rolling over in their graves at news of this remake.  Actually, this film has such obvious affection for the original (including using the Oscar-winning Arthur’s Theme), that I think they might actually even like it.  Go figure.

Movie Grade: ARTHUR 2011 – B
Movie Grade: ARTHUR 1981 – A

RANGO – movie review

Published March 24, 2011

When it was first announced that director Gore Verbinski (The Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3) was going to follow up that gargantuanly successful trilogy by directing an animated feature, many filmgoers let out a simultaneous “Huh?”

I, however, found this news to be a natural fit, simply because I am a big fan of Verbinski’s 1997 kid’s film Mouse Hunt.  Starring Nathan Lane, Christopher Walken, and an adorably elusive rodent, Mouse Hunt played like a 98-minute, live-action Chuck Jones cartoon, heavy on laughs and Rube Goldberg gags.  With that one feature, Verbinski proved himself a natural at tackling this tricky genre, and so my expectations were quite high when I recently walked into my local theater for a screening of Verbinski’s first fully animated movie, RANGO.

RANGO tells the story of a city lizard who is accidentally jolted out of his terrarium (and out of the back of his owner’s station wagon) and into the unforgiving desert.  Rango is having an identity crisis – naturally, he’s a chameleon – and now that he has been thrown into the sandy wild, he must figure out exactly WHO he is if he is to survive.  Eventually, Rango (wonderfully voiced by Johnny Depp) stumbles into a western town, the aptly-named Dirt, that is is dire need of a hero …

While this tried and true plotline has been told countless times before (Shane, High Plains Drifter, The Three Amigos, LOL), Verbinski certainly makes everything old new again.  In fact, while I have never seen anything quite like this movie, its homages to other films are so clever and a’plenty, I think film buffs may get a bigger kick out of it than the average person off the street.  While the main plot is something akin to Once Upon a Time in the West meets Chinatown meets Blazing Saddles, there are subtle nods to Raising Arizona, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Apocalypse Now, The Missouri Breaks, and too many others to mention (… actually I could mention them, but much of the fun here is trying to spot these obscure cinematic references which are bound to go right over the little kiddie’s heads).

No one has ever tried to do a spaghetti western in animation style before (Tarantino’s Kill Bill not withstanding), and the result here is so impressive, so visually arresting, so hallucinogenically off kilter, and so flat-out entertaining, Verbinski may have reinvigorated a genre without even realizing it.  That chase scene through the canyon, with our heroes riding hell mell with a massive bottle of their most precious resource (water), while being pursued by bat-riding bad guys, all to the smile-inducing strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie played on banjoes!, is hands down the most original and entertaining scene I’ve watched all year … so far.  By the time the mysterious, and oft-mentioned Spirit of the West showed up, this film had completely won me over.

In addition to Depp’s performance, fine voice support is also provided by Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty (doing a fine John Huston impression), Abigail Breslin (who for some reason sounds like Winona Ryder here), Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, and Timothy Olyphant (who also sounds an awful lot like … oh, but that would be giving too much away).

It is absolutely worth mentioning that this film’s musical score by Hans Zimmer (Inception, Sherlock Holmes) adds a staggering amount of enjoyment, from his Raising Arizona-esque yodel symphonies, to that aforementioned banjo homage to Wagner, to the theme song sung by Los Lobos (good luck getting it out of your head for a few days), this film’s music is half of its charm, and that’s saying a lot.

I don’t want to reveal any more than necessary here, so I won’t.  I will say that, even though it’s only March, RANGO is, and will remain, one of the best films of 2011.  I loved it.

GRADE: A