Screaming for Avengers: Two Confessions

I have a confession to make.

I never read comic books as a kid.

The earliest I remember was picking up an issue of Star Brand for 35 cents in junior high, trying to get into it, and failing. I always liked the Hulk, but that was from the TV show. Same with the Superman movies, and the Batman TV show. I came into it second hand. I’ve enjoyed many comics and graphic novels since, from The Dark Knight Returns, to the first Marshal Law books, to Kurt Busiek’s excellent Astro City, which remains my favorite superhero series. And if you don’t like superheroes, his standalone “The Tarnished Angel” is a great noir story.

But as someone who didn’t grow up with comics, or love them wholeheartedly later, I have some unpopular opinions. I think Zak Snyder’s ending to Watchmen was an improvement. I like Ang Lee’s Hulk movie better than the Ed Norton one. I find the X-Men annoying, because the mutie as race minority allegory is patronizing and doesn’t make sense when mutants can zap you to dust by forgetting to wear their sunglasses. We have reason to fear them. But that’s an argument for another day, maybe when the Wolverine movie comes out.

I was not sold on Marvel’s lead-ups to the Avengers. Iron Man, I loved that movie. The rest were all flawed in some way. Captain America probably the least, but it needed more action and less montage. And he should have punched out Hitler. Thor was good fun, but there was a lot of running and silliness and the Devastator was a boring villain. The Incredible Hulk had its moments, but I doubt I’d watch it again.

I was worried about the Avengers when the opening and villain introduction were rather tepid. Nick Fury and SHIELD were not sufficiently bad-ass. That is rectified by the end of the movie, thank goodness. My review will be short and sweet. Every character shines in this one. Much has been said of the fantastic interplay of the heroes, and that is a great strength. But even alone, they are the best incarnation on-screen, even Stark as Iron Man. Let’s face it, they all have issues and spending time with any of these guys gets tiresome. It’s a testament to Robert Downey Jr.’s characterization that we don’t want Rhodey to drop a deuce in every one of Stark’s suits by the end of an Iron Man movie. And that’s fine, he should be a flawed man.

But in the Avengers, they can be more annoying than ever, because the doses are smaller. Cap can be an out of touch goody-good. Banner can be aloof, condescending and always have “You won’t like me when I’m angry” unspoken, on the tip of his tongue, a passive-aggressive bully. Thor’s elevated speech and godliness can be more than a joke. The best scene is likely when the gang is all arguing due to trickster god Loki’s manipulations, aboard SHIELD’s hovercraft air carrier. And that includes the Hulk going apeshit, which should be my favorite scene.

Well played, Whedon. That’s confession two. Despite being a Firefly fan, I’ve always been very critical of Joss Whedon’s writing. It’s very good, but there was always fan service, which rubs me the wrong way. I find it condescending, especially when superhero movies have been blockbusters for a decade. But I will humbly say this is his best script yet. I forgot he was attached to it until an hour in. He’s very subtle, he is respectful to the material, but makes it his own. And he has given us iconic characterizations of superhero icons that will be the measuring stick for many years to come; they all come into their own. He makes Black Widow much more than sexy kick-ass window dressing, and damn, he knows how to use effects. This is the first movie in years where the CG effects haven’t required me to forcibly suspend disbelief.

And this is a comic book movie. It is not a movie with superheroes in it. The heroes clobber each other, change sides multiple times, begrudgingly become a team, just like they do in the comics. It’s like pro wrestling. They get a lot of things pitch perfect. The Hulk is played as terrifying to anyone who’s not a god or wearing armor. The bad guys, armored aliens, aren’t just ugly, violent and stupid, but they have a goofy menace to them like all good comic book cannon fodder does, laughing and shooting their laser guns right up until the Hulk pops their head like a grape. The dialogue is fantastic, and the back and forth banter in battle makes the long, repetitive slugfest remain exciting.

The film is full of nice touches, and I plan on watching it enough times to catch them all. Now if you don’t mind, I want to go get some shawarma.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

2008 Retrospective

Top ten lists suck. Movies can be so different, yet so enjoyable, that it can be difficult to compare them against one another. For example, one of my favorite cinema experiences this year was Role Models, but is it really one of the top 10 movies of 2008? Then again, who the hell am I to think that this blog post is a monument in history, and by leaving out Frost/Nixon I’m upsetting the balance of the universe?

Here are the movies I enjoyed most in 2008. This means they can be the pinnacle of their own genre. That’s why something twee like Son of Rambow or brutal like Rambo can beat out The Curious Case of Benji’s Mean Buttin’.

10. The Fall
Probably the most gorgeous visuals of 2008, other than Wall-E. A injured stuntman (Lee Pace) tells tall tales to a little girl in the hospital, but not just to befriend her. The fantasies he constructs reminded me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the story itself is engaging enough to make it more than eye candy. A sleeper of the year.

9. Milk
Sure, Sean Penn’s performance is incredible. But let’s not give James Franco, Emil Hirsch and Josh Brolin short shrift! Even Diego Luna is good as a drama queen. But beyondf the acting, this is one of Gus Van Sant’s best- he brings us to ’70s San Francisco as deftly as David Fincher did in Zodiac, he captures the feel of the era and makes an engaging biopic out of a political life. And he doesn’t make any pointers to Prop 8 like another hamfisted director might (cough, Oliver Stone).

8. Rambo
Best pure action picture of 2008, one of the most bloody and brutal of the genre, and a fitting end to the John Rambo story (if it’s over). A return to the roots of First Blood and Stallone doing what he does best- staring and killing.


7. Son of Rambow
This is listed as a 2007 film in IMDb but it only got theatrical release in the U.S. this year. So I’m counting it. It’s a delightful childhood fantasy about kids making their own sequel to First Blood, back in the early 80s, in small town England. Great characters, great story. If you liked Big Fish but don’t like Tim Burton’s mopey goth bullshit, this is infused with that childlike sense of wonder, some emotional dashes of reality and no smarm, and none of Timboy’s hangups.

6. In Bruges
The dark comedy sleeper of the year, this is an utterly fantastic hit-man thriller comedy from Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrel redeems himself as an actor after S.W.A.T., and his eyebrows deserve the Academy Award. I warn you, the comedy is fiercely gallows-esque, but everything happens as it must. It’s on DVD, rent it now.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh’s newest is a character study at heart, with Poppy’s indefatigable cheer, her roomie Zoe’s unfazeable calm and driving instructor Scott’s fierce armor of seething rage. But we see through the chinks of that armor, and see something nailed down and in torment (thanks to Gerald Kersh for that great line). Sally Hawkins won the Globe for best comedic actress and hopefully she’ll get a nom at the Oscars, or Eddie Marsan will get supporting, but I think this film will be sadly overlooked. Don’t make that mistake yourself.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
It’s as good as everyone says it is. Go see it. It’s an uplifting experience, and an eye-opening look into Mumbai. Solid acting, and few subtitles if you care about that. Different, exuberant, and an emotional thrill ride. Danny Boyle’s best in years.

3. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan transcends the comic book genre with this excellent thriller that reminded me of the best of the Batman Animated Series remade for adults. Heath Ledger gave an incredible performance as we all know, but the secondary characters played by Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and Michael Caine fill in the cracks in reality that form when we watch an eccentric billionaire dress up to fight an insane terrorist in clown make-up. The film is built more like a labyrinthine criminal takedown procedural by Michael Mann, and gripping throughout. I missed it in IMAX, to my enduring shame.

2. The Wrestler
The best drama of the year, and Mickey Rourke’s return to fame. Even if you don’t like wrestling, and think it’s stupid, this is a great movie and deserves you give it a shot. Aronofsky is one of the best directors working today.

1. Wall-E
The best film of 2008. First, it looks stunning- you don’t even know it’s CG until the little cockroach shows up. Secondly Wall-E may be a robot, but he’s one of the best characters this year; and his simple love story, set against the backdrop of a hilarious satire on the future of human expansion (pun intended) hits us smack in the gut to play our heartstrings like a certain Marx Brother on a harp in the middle of a terrific comedy. If you haven’t seen it, this isn’t “just” a kid’s film, it’s Brazil done by Chaplin, and one of the most refreshing science fiction stories in a good while.

Yet to see: Doubt, Choke, Good, Synecdoche, New York, Towelhead, W., Miracle at St. Anna, Australia, Waltz with Bashir, Encounters at the Edge of the World, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Shotgun Stories; I was gonna wait until I saw them all, but the Oscar noms come out tomorrow so I want this here first. Then I can make my predictions, and what I think deserves it- which are almost always at odds.


Documentary:

Standard Operating Procedure – The most important documentary of the year, about Abu Ghraib; Frost/Nixon for real, he gets confessions you won’t believe. No one wants to hear about Iraq anymore, but if you care about this country’s name being dragged in the mud, you should see this film so this doesn’t happen again.

Man on Wire – Excellent doc about Phillippe Petit, who tightroped between the Twin Towers.

Foreign Films:
Let the Right One In – Coming of age movie and vampire tale that throws away Anne Rice’s horrible influence on the genre, and makes us frightened of them again. Incredible.

Tell No One – Excellent thriller based on Harlan Coben’s novel, moved to Paris. The Fugitive with more thrills and twists.

Honorable Mentions (worth seeing):

The Reader
– fine performances in a somewhat overlong and convoluted telling of a strong story about guilt, shame, and the eagerness to go along that makes those who stand up even more extraordinary.

The Visitor – Emotionally powerful indie by the director of The Station Agent, about a withdrawn, widowed professor who gets attached to a couple he finds squatting in his New York apartment. A touching and heartfelt film that shouldn’t be overlooked; if a big name played the prof, this would be huge.

Religulous – Bill Maher shows us the religious who border on crazy and makes fun of them.

Defiance – A fine WW2 story we’ve not heard before. Old-fashioned good movie.

RocknRolla – Guy Ritchie does his thing again, good fun but takes a long time to warm up.

Rachel Getting Married – Fine drama by Jonathan Demme, Anne Hathaway gives an excellent performance, but it is a bit indulgent in the overlong wedding scenes.

Role Models – Funniest comedy of the year.

Iron Man – Probably the most fun I had in a theater. Great action, and Robert Downey Jr. embodies the part and makes Tony Stark his own. Gwyneth Paltrow is delightful as Pepper Potts and isn’t just arm candy. Jon Favreau did a great job directing, and I’m sad Terence Howard won’t be returning as War Machine. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will live up to this.

Gran Torino– Clint Eastwood’s performance will be remembered as one of his best, and it’s a solid story that gives us insight into a culture not many people know about.

Revolutionary Road – great acting, but this is American Beauty: The ’50s.

Frost/Nixon – Great performances but a bit sketchy inbetween the interview parts.

Be Kind Rewind – Overlooked cute and quirky comedy by Michel Gondry with Jack Black and Mos Def.

Kung Fu Panda – One of Dreamworks best- a classic old kung fu movie done for kids with a great voice cast a funny script. Better than expected.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Very funny Apatow gang film with new guy to watch, Jason Segel.
The Bank Job – Solid British heist film.
Pineapple Express – Terence Malick makes a stoner action comedy.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno – Kevin Smith does Apatow; not his best but lots of laughs.
Tropic Thunder – Very funny, Robert Downey Jr.’s second hit of the year. Tom Cruise? yawn.
Quantum of Solace – Too short but a fine Bond film.
The Ruins – Survival horror in Yucatan; very effective.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Beautiful and strange; great comic book adaptation.
Get Smart – Solid movie version of the classic series.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay – Funnier than the original? Maybe.
Doomsday – Modern homage to postapocalyptica with Rhona Mitra as the new action heroine.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden – Another good doc by Spurlock.
Young People Fucking – a very funny Canadian sex comedy about 3 couples and their sex lives.
The Wackness- Nice coming of age story about a pot dealer in 1994.
The Foot Fist Way – Danny McBride plays a small-town Tae Kwon Do instructor trying to get his idol to perform at his school. If you liked him in Hot Rod you’ll love this. It’s all cruel, sick humor, so it’s not for everyone.

Abominable Mentions (view at your own risk):

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Aliens from Close Encounters – Need I say more?
The Crappening – I didn’t review this because so many had eviscerated it that I felt I couldn’t possibly add anything useful. It’s a heavy-handed ’50s sci-fi that isn’t very scary.
The Strangers – Dumb people get killed.
Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control – Cash in or TV pilot. Yawn.
Death Race – Paul W.S. Anderson continues to make forgettable crap.

A New Year’s Toast to Mediocrity:
Burn After Reading – Fargo in D.C.
Slacker Uprising – A Private History of a Voting Campaign That Failed
The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – Better than 2 not as good as 1
The Incredible Hulk – Everything but super-serum Blonsky is forgettable.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Forrest Gump 2
Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody coasting with a good cast.
Speed Racer – Longer than several seasons of the cartoon.

I am Iron Man


Me and the Firecracker went to see Iron Man this weekend at a matinée, and were not disappointed. This is my favorite Marvel superhero movie since the first Spider-Man, which I regard to be the best of the bunch. Robert Downey Jr. was a perfect and inspired casting choice, and lives up to, and beyond the task.

Gwyneth Paltrow does an excellent job as his assistant Pepper Potts, and I like to think she got comfortable with this sort of role in the underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Jeff Bridges plays business associate Obediah Stane, with a beard and a shaved head, looking entirely different and fitting once again perfectly as the embodiment of elder power-broker machismo. Terence Howard plays Rhodes, a military man who works closely with Stark industries.

It’s a terrific cast, and Jon Favreau directs them with aplomb. He’s come a long way since the indulgent film Made, which I found tedious. He plays a small role and thankfully sticks to the sidelines, and redeems himself for appearing in Daredevil with this excellent superhero film. The plot is sufficiently ridiculous without straining our disbelief. Arms broker, genius inventor, and womanizing playboy Tony Stark is captured by opposing forces while doing a weapons demo in Afghanistan, and creates a “primitive” power armor suit to escape; he undergoes a deep change after being tortured and held captive, and makes enemies when he wants to shift business toward power generation.
He builds a new suit to take care of the people who captured him, and gets into shenanigans. I really don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but having heard a little comic book nerd lore, I was able to figure out who the bad guy was early on. The effects are stunning, and the animatronic bad guy armor is pretty amazing, done by Stan Winston of course. And it doesn’t even look like the Terminator endoskeleton in any way shape or form. Favreau used a mix of live action and CG, and I wasn’t able to pick out any bad CGI, and I’m usually really picky.

What makes this movie, seriously, are the characters and how they’re played. We’ve seen superheroes fly around and blow shit up before, and we’ve seen the playboy millionaire who fights by night before. Iron Man has his demons, but he’s very different from Batman, despite the similarities in the latest incarnation of the Dark Knight. The film has a lot of enthusiasm and it’s infectious, without diving into cheese territory like the X-Men movies or Daredevil. It’s a lot of fun, and while there’s some good action, the end fight is a little lackluster, and it’s really telling when you’re watching a superhero version of Monster Garage and enjoying the hell out of it.

Great job Mr. Downey and company. Make sure you sit through the credits for a great Easter egg at the end. Also, they set themselves up for a sequel long before this, with a perfect little nod to War Machine showing up sometime. The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s the best entertainment in a theater I’ve had in a long time. Its weaknesses are easily forgivable, but I was a little miffed that the Black Sabbath song so prominently featured in the teasers was relegated to a partial play in the end credits. Here’s hoping the sequels are as strong as this one, because I want to see more of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, and hopefully some more Iron Man regulars.

The previews are also a complete and total nerdgasm: Indiana Jones and the Unwieldy Title, The Dark Knight, and The Incredible Hulk (which I’m not too thrilled about, but what the hell). Also Mike Myer’s latest character The Love Guru, and Adam Sandler in what looks to be a genuinely funny film and not just fan service, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s latest twist flick, The Happening. The internet already ruined the ending of that to me, so it’s as transparent as The Village to me.