"The Avengers" (2012)

The AvengersThe Avengers (2012)
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Running time: 142 minutes

So here it is, after five films spread across four years, all five littered with little hints and tid-bits as to what was to come; after the bomb shell that the great Joss Whedon would be at the helm as writer and director and it’s finally here: The Avengers is here. And after all that anticipation, all that planning, all the excitement and intrigue being built up for four long years and all we are handed is a phoned in, lackluster, cheesy, idiotic, loathsome, shocking, borderline-

Are you guys actually buying this? Can I stop pretending now? THE FILM IS FREAKIN’ AMAZING!

Now Showing this week is the incredibly hyped The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly fame). At long last the lead heroes from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America have come together to form the superhero ass-kicking team know as “The Avengers”. Basic plot premise (free of spoilers) is that Thor’s pseudo brother Loki has returned to Earth with plans of conquest after gaining the support of an unknown alien force, and his plans require the use of the Tesseract (the glowing blue cube from Captain America). S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury decides that now is the time to put the Avengers Initiative into effect, for it will take Earth’s mightiest heroes to defeat Loki and his impending invasion. And that’s all I can really say without saying things that you might not want to know going into the film.

The Avengers is an amazing achievement since, as I have said before, it is easily a film that could have collapsed under its own weight. With four superheroes who have all had their own films, along with a cast of S.H.I.E.L.D characters and Loki himself, the sheer amount of strong characters each being of focus and being packed into just over two hours could have easily been chaotic and shallow. But that is not the case with this film. Every character, both heroic and villainous, gets their deserved amount of characterisation and interaction and it is all achieved without anyone stepping on anyone else’s toes. The Avengers is teeming with deep characterisation for each main member of the team, some more obvious than others (my personal favourite being Iron Man’s simple, one line exploration!). And each of the Avengers has their physical power both demonstrated and challenged by the other members of the team, and it was an effective way to not simply assume that Thor could thunder-blast everything into oblivion before anyone else could do anything. For example, the Hulk cannot pick up Thor’s hammer as it’s too heavy for him, but Thor’s hammer cannot make a dent in Captain America’s shield. These moments both stroke the Marvel fan boys in their “who would beat who in a fight” fantasies as well as establishing the strength of the Avengers as a unit.

I simply cannot reiterate enough just how good a job is done with the characters of this film. Not one of them is wasted, and they are all useful. I mean, we can all agree that Captain America is the lamest and most useless of the Avengers team. When you have a bullet-proof, flying munitions man; a gigantic, super-strong wrecking ball of a hulk; and the goddamn God of Thunder, then a man who can simply throw (and hit people with) a shield really well is kind of the Meg Griffin of the group. But The Avengers finds the perfect place for Captain America, not only as an effective martial artist but as a leader. That’s where he comes from, leadership in the second world war. Iron Man and the Hulk are brilliant scientists and Thor understands the enemy better than anyone. The film has found the perfect way for them all the function together. But the best aspect about this film is the fact that they don’t function well together, not at first. These people really butt heads with each other, with them all being super-humans and having that constant sense of competition as to who is the better hero. And they all find ways to get under each other’s skin, finding the perfect things to exploit and hurt each other with. It is these moments that are the best parts of the film, seeing the flaws in each one of these iconic heroes.

But how on earth is The Avengers achieving this level of perfection? Come on, you all know what I’m going to say now:

Joss Whedon.

The reason this film works so perfectly is because the script is brilliant, and the script is brilliant because Joss Whedon just gets it. His specialty is to play with an ensemble of strong personalities, and also varying personalities. He can see every scene from the perspective of each character and knows what they would say and do within their personal framework. More to the point, he saw all of these things in a genre that many people don’t believe them to exist in: the superhero movie genre. Mark my words, superhero movies are infinitely better when one actually tries to focus on characterisation over simply blowing things up, and this is something that has been rarely seen outside of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Combine this level of script depth with Whedon’s trademark wit and you have one hell of a script.

However, speaking of blowing things up, the action portions of The Avengers are awe inspiring. The scale of some of the battles (particularly the finale) and the quality of the visual effects are breathtaking. Each hero has such a unique effect on the battlefield, and all of them are amazing to watch (and you haven’t lived until you see the Hulk in action!). Not a cent of the estimated two-hundred-and-twenty-million dollar budget was wasted. That final battle will stick in my mind for the rest of my cinema-going life.

I have seen around that many viewers have compared The Avengers to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, claiming they are similar in plot and experience. And I suppose they would be right if you ignore the fact that The Avengers is actually a good film and is devoid of incoherent action scenes, low brow/forced humour, and Ken Jeong. Others have criticised the story for being simple, and it is but the depth and complexities of The Avengers comes from the characters and their effects on each other; the “bad guy wants to conquer Earth, good guys must stop him” story is simply the framework for these characters to blossom.

Anyone who knows me, and perhaps some avid readers if they’ve been paying attention, will know that I have a list of films to which I give a perfect score. They are all there for different reasons, and there is no specific criteria other than this: “I wouldn’t change a thing about this film”. There are always nitpicks to be had, but in these films they are negligible. The list has grown over the years, recently reaching nine films at the beginning of the year. But now I feel that my list has out grown the name of “my list of films to which I give a perfect score”. Now I believe I can safely call it “my Top Ten”.

See you next time!

P.S. As is the usual with these films, don’t leave as soon as the credits start rolling. Those with knowledge of the Marvel universe will have their mind’s blown. And if you aren’t someone with that knowledge, ask someone who is privy to it so that it can blow your mind too!

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"The Artist" (2011)

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The Artist (2011)
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Running time: 100 minutes

You know, I think I’m just terrible at picking the Best Picture Oscar winners. As I’ve said before, I make a point to go see the film that takes away Best Picture at the Academy Awards regardless of whether it looks like my type of film; and for the last couple of years I never seem to have seen the winning film prior to the ceremony. What’s up with that? I always see most of the films that are nominated and it’s always the one I haven’t seen that wins! But I digress, as here I am, some four/five months after it’s release (and almost two months after the Oscars!), reviewing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2011: The Artist.

Barely Still Showing this week (I had to hunt around for a cinema to still be showing the film!) is The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius. The big grab for this film is that it is in fact a silent film, much like the films being made about a century ago. The colour scheme is black and white, as well as the only soundtrack being the musical score with all important dialogue being displayed as text slides. The Artist is also self reflexive in its storyline as the film is about a silent film star in the late 1920s named George Valentin who’s status in Hollywood is being challenged by the introduction of “talkies” and the rise of a new talking star Peppy Miller. The more Peppy succeeds, the further George falls, but not only has she stolen his career but also his heart.

The Artist cleaned up at the Oscars this past February, taking home Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. And I must say that the award for the soundtrack is hugely deserved. The soundtrack is amazing, capturing the mood of every scene and moment with excellent precision while at the same time keeping everything fresh and interesting as it is the main source of audio for the entire story. And let’s face it, the music of the 1920s was just amazing to begin with! The costuming was quite excellent I must admit, but nothing we haven’t already seen in every other film set in the 1920s. Jean Dujadin’s performance as George Valentin was definitely inspired. He demonstrated such specificity in his gestures and expressions and it conveyed so much character and depth. In fact, the entire cast nailed this aspect of a silent film performance!

If I had to describe The Artist in a single word it would be “touching”. All the aspects of the romance between Peppy and George were very touching, as well as how it slowly destroyed George’s marriage. George and his faithful dog are a pair of rascals for cinema history. My personal favourite was the relationship between George and his loyal driver Clifton (James Cromwell), it was enough to almost bring a tear to my eye. But all of this got me thinking: “why is it touching?” And I went through all the movies I could think of that I found “touching” and I suddenly stumbled upon the answer: they are almost all silent! Outside of well written television shows that have hours and hours of screen time for me to bond with the characters, most of the films that I have been touched by have been due to use of silence. The big ones that stand out for me are the Pixar films WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009). The sweet innocence of WALL-E and his childish want to simply hold the hand of the only other robot he’s ever met was just beautiful in the silent (wordless morelike) opening forty-five minutes of WALL-E. And everyone is aware of the silent opening section of Up, using a perfect blend of cutesie cartoonishness and crushing realism to make a strong man cry in the first ten minutes! And in The Artist, the same thing is at play. Approximately eighty percent of human communication is through body language, so is the reason that silent films are so effective is because we’ve removed the remaining twenty percent that we tend to focus on? Is it because when we remove the words that we wake up to previously subliminal messages of the human body? I suppose you can have cliched or contrived dialogue, but physical interaction can always be truthful.

And while I really enjoyed The Artist, here I must write the enevitable “but”…

I wouldn’t have chosen it for Best Picture. Yes, it was very original and unique, and yes it is an excellent film. But my pick for the best film of 2011 would still have to be Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. The reason being because while The Artist touched my heart by nailing that eighty percent of human communication, The Descendants did it using the whole hundred. The moments of stillness and silence in The Descendants were matched, if not exceeded, by the vocal interactions between characters.

So once again the Academy and I don’t see eye to eye. Ah well, there’s always next year!

See you next time!

"Wrath of the Titans" (2012)

Wrath of the Titans (2012)
Directed by: Jonathon Liebesman
Running time: 99 minutes

You know what is really awesome? The 2005 PlayStation 2 game God of War. It was an ancient Greek story about a Spartan warrior named Kratos who was once the right hand of Ares, the god of war. After he was manipulated by Ares into murdering his family, thus being free of (as Ares sees it) his hindering humanity, Kratos is sent into exile and vows to one day punish Ares for what he has done. Plagued by the nightmares of murdering his family, Kratos turns to the goddess Athena who tells him that if he serves her then he shall be forgiven for all his sins. In response to his sister using his prized weapon, Ares wages war on the city of Athens. Zeus has forbidden any of the gods to directly harm each other as a means to stem conflict between them, so Athena asks one final taks of Kratos: to kill the god who stole everything from him. But Kratos is merely a man (albeit revealed to be the son of Zeus later on) and Ares is a god, standing some one hundred metres tall! So the only way for Kratos to defeat him is to find Pandora’s Box, the ultimate weapon created by the three brothers Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. The quest is huge, the hero incredibly flawed due to his selfish hatred for Ares clouding his judgement when the lives of all of Athens hangs in the balance. What’s more, it is brutal and harsh, just as the real Greek myths of old (forgive the contradiction).

The reason I bring up this masterpiece of entertainment is that there has never been a movie made of God of War, although it has been “discussed” many times now. But when Clash of the Titans was released in 2010, and now Wrath of the Titans in 2012, I was hoping that perhaps I had found my substitute. While in many ways these films have tried to recreate the mythic stories of ancient Greece, they don’t quite get there. Not 100%.

As you may have gathered, Now Showing this week is Wrath of the Titans, directed by Jonathon Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles). Following the events of Clash of the Titans (that to be honest, no one really remembers), Perseus (Sam Worthington) is trying to live a normal life with his son and away from the gods of Olympus. However, Hades and Ares have a plan to unleash the inprisoned titan Cronos, a gigantic beast and father of Hades, Zeus and Poseidon, so as he can grant them continued immortality in this world where the gods are no longer prayed to. See, apparently if no one prays to the gods, they start to die rather then them just coming to Earth and showing people that they still need to appease them or they die like in the good old days. Anyway, Zeus gets captured by Hades and Perseus must go save him before Cronos can rise.

Let me start by saying that if there were to be a movie made of God of War, I would want it to look like Wrath of the Titans. Mostly. I mean, it has the harshness down pat, with the world being desolate and rough, and Hades (the realm of the dead, not the god) looking very dark and sinister and almost endless; so I think visually it’s hit the nail on the head. The only visual problem I have is that of some of the characters. Especially the gods! If you look at how the gods were believed to look in the ancient statues of Greece, you’d see that all the gods were babes! Zeus may have had white hair and a flowing beard, but he had an eight pack to be reckoned with. All the female gods (which are abscent in the film) were the perfect images of female beauty. Now I love Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes but neither of them fit the description I just gave. It’s true Hades was never really seen as beautiful, but Zeus, Ares and Poseidon were. Essentially the gods were seen as (visually, not behaviourally) the perfect beings, and they do not look as such in this film.

The action of the film is a highlight, which I’m certain is not a surprise. What these films lack in plot and deep characters, they make for in epic action scenes. The monsters that are faced are awesome and well realised, however the biggest problem of the action scenes is Perseus himself. It just never felt like, maybe bar one or two instances, that he had the strength of a demi-god or was indeed special at all. He was often fumbling around, only catching a lucky break in order to slay the beasts. He needed to do things that other humans couldn’t, such as resist the force of something really heavy or pull something incedibly strong down to it’s knees. Kratos in God of War manages to throw the entire Colossus of Rhodes at one point, and he is a made up Greek hero! The one rule with ancient Greece is it needs to be epic!

So I suppose you’re wondering what I actually did enjoy about this film? Well, the only real answer I can give to that is that inspite of it’s fairly ordinary script and character depth, I mainly enjoyed it because I have a massive hard on for anything to do with Greek mythology. I love Greek myths, with their heroes who are so much larger than life that they can do the illogical; their gods that actually make sense instead of the gods we believe in today; it’s all such a rich universe to set foot in. So when the film mentioned the pits of Tartarus, or Cronos, or Hades disgruntlement for being banished to guard the Underworld, then I got really excited because I knew what they were talking about. But I can imagine someone who isn’t too familiar with Greek mythology to simply be bored and a tad confused as to what was happening.

I guess then that Wrath of the Titans is only an enjoyable film if you’re me, or a mythology professor. Probably more me though since I can’t imagine a mythology professor enjoying the film twisting the actual mythos and also having a bad script and storyline. So I think we need to make a Greek movie where everything is as it is in the stories. The hero can hold his breath underwater indefinitely, or he can throw a ten metre tall cyclops over his shoulder. The gods aren’t these wise old mystics but instead are the beautiful, debaucherous creatures of the ancient times. But, can it please just be a God of War film? Nothing would please me more than to see Kratos kicking the ass of everything mythology has to throw at him!

See you next time!