Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: The Avengers, Hunger Games,The Raven, Dark Shadows

You've been warned.

The Avengers 
Ever since I was a kid and started reading Marvel comics I dreamed that someday, someone somewhere would make an Avengers movie. Happily, that day is finally here. I never thought I’d live to see it.

The Plot: 
Evil Asgardian Loki arrives on Earth and proceeds to... ah, it’s the Avengers! You know the plot. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye team up to save the world.

That this film exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. Hollywood is normally all about making a quick buck, rushing movies through production whether they’re ready or not. They’re perfectly willing to spend $100 million on special effects but $9.98 on a screenwriter. Who cares if the script is ready, we start filming today!

But with a lot of patience and a well thought out plan, Marvel Studios carefully released five movies in the past few years that set up a whole little movie universe. It was a big gamble; if even one of these movies had bombed, the whole Avengers deal would have probably fallen apart. 

Characters regularly made guest appearances in each other’s movies, reinforcing the idea that this was all taking place in a single consistent universe, just like Marvel comics used to do (which was always one of my favorite things about them. It really is a modern day miracle.  

Somehow Marvel makes the whole shared universe thing look so effortless. Pepper Potts from the Iron Man movies saunters into Tony Stark’s apartment. Dr. Erik Selvig from the Thor film is there, working for S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson is back, gushing over getting to meet his idol Captain America. It all adds up to create a very cool unified world. Fortunately all that planning is paying them huge dividends. Maybe this will inspire other studios to follow their lead. I ain’t holding my breath though.

Captain America rides to the rescue in Marvel Studios' "The Avengers"
Seeing the various characters meet and interact is the whole reason for a movie like this, and The Avengers doesn’t disappoint. Writer and director Joss Whedon ably juggles multiple characters and story lines and somehow manages to give everyone a chance to shine. Heck, he even made Hawkeye-- a character with no powers other than good aim-- seem cool!

Everything you could ever want in an Avengers movie is there, and then some. Loki is the main villain whose presence causes the formation of the team, just like in the very first issue of the comic, way back in the early 1960s. They even included the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier! I have to say I never thought I’d see that in a movie. My favorite moment: the scene in which the camera spins around the six main characters as they strike their super heroic poses. I have to admit in all honesty that I squealed like a little girl when I saw that.

The Hulk and Thor spring into action in "The Avengers."
The Hulk was definitely the breakout character in the film. After three tries they finally got the Hulk right. He was absolutely hilarious in the movie, and probably my favorite thing about it. In the past the Hulk has been a totally CGI animation, but this was the first time that the actor who played Banner also played the Hulk (in full motion capture gear, of course). I believe that made all the difference.

I was a bit worried at first as to how some of the characters would interact. Iron Man and Captain America are fairly realistic characters; would it look silly for them to share the screen with a giant green monster and an other-dimensional alien god with a magic hammer? Thankfully I needn’t have worried. Everyone and everything fits together just fine.

Nick Fury brings the team together in "The Avengers."
I very much enjoyed The Avengers and I don’t begrudge the creators one penny of their box office take. That said, I really wish people would quit announcing how many records have been smashed by this movie. Yes, it made more in its first weekend than any other film to date. Yes, it reached a billion dollars faster than any previous movie. Of course it’s breaking records! Movie tickets are higher right now than they’ve ever been! It only makes sense that it’s raking in truckloads of cash. And it was in 3D to boot, so that adds even more to the already inflated total.

For the record, Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner marks the THIRD actor to take on the role this century. Ruffalo does an admirable job, despite his tendency to sound a little like Ray Romano when he speaks. Maybe he’ll finally break the Banner Curse and stick around for more than one film.

And you know what? Next year ticket prices will be even higher and some other movie will make even more money. The gross doesn’t mean anything (well, except to the bean counters I suppose). Butts in seats! That’s what counts if you’re keeping score. Count the NUMBER of tickets sold, not the COST of those tickets. THAT’S how you measure a movie’s popularity and success.

Now that Marvel Studios can seemingly do no wrong, I have to ask: WTF, DC Comics? You guys can’t seem to make a decent superhero movie unless it’s got Batman, Dark or Knight in the title. Barring the Christopher Nolan films, you haven’t made a decent superhero movie since Superman the Movie way back in 1978. Marvel seems quite capable of doing it, so why can’t you? Where’s our Justice League film?

One last thing: Be sure and sit through the credits (whadya mean you don’t have time, you gonna be late for your meeting with the President?) to get a glimpse of the Marvel villain who may be the big bad in the next Thor movie, or the inevitable Avengers sequel.

• It’s an Avengers movie! What more do you want?

• The new and improved Hulk.

• Iron Man got his round ARC generator back. Like Joss Whedon, that triangle on his chest bugged me.

• Lots of nice touches for fans of the Marvel films, but newcomers shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out what’s going on.

• I kind of wish a certain character hadn’t been killed off, but I understand the reasons why it had to happen. Other than that, I got nothing!

About as perfect a superhero movie as you could ever hope for. I give it an A!

The Hunger Games

I know, this movie came out months and months ago, but I wrote a review of it and by god I’m going to use it.

Lionsgate Studios tries and succeeds in setting up its own Twilight-esque movie franchise.

The Plot: 
It’s the future, although most of it looks like the past. North America is now called Panem, a nation divided into twelve Districts and ruled by the decadent Capitol. At some point in the past the Districts attempted a revolt that failed. To punish them for their arrogance, each year the Capitol demands each District offer up two of its children as Tributes to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death. Seems like it would have been easier to just levy some heavy taxes on them instead, but what do I know.

Katniss Everdeen, our heroine from District 12, volunteers for the Games after her younger sister is chosen. She and Peeta Malark (you can tell it’s the future because of the wacky names), a teen male from her District are whisked away to the Capitol where they spend a few weeks in training and being exploited by the media. Then it’s off the the Games, where Katniss must fight for her life against 23 other tributes. Last one alive is the winner!

It’s a simple yet effective tale that takes a hard look at big government, war, the media in general and reality TV in particular. If you’re a curmudgeon who hates teenagers and would like nothing more than to watch them killing one another for two hours, this is the movie for you!

The movie is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the best selling book with few surprises. Most of the internet was going on and on about how the story was a ripoff of the Japanese shock film Battle Royale, with a dash of Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure. I never really got that impression from the film. If anything I thought something about it seemed a little Star Trek-ish; I can think of at least three episodes in which Kirk and Co. were forced to fight for the amusement of a crowd. There’s nothing new under the sun by this point in history anyway, so who cares if it’s reminiscent of something else?

I enjoyed the movie much more that I thought I would, and was surprised at how long it stuck with me. I was still thinking about it a week or two after I saw it, which is unusual. Whether it’s due to my advanced age or the fact that most movies today are disposable pablum, few films seem to stick with me anymore.

Star Jennifer Lawrence admirably carries the movie on her young shoulders. Woody Harrelson does a decent job of playing a drunken burnout. Elizabeth Banks is perfect and completely unrecognizable as Effie Trinket. Stanley Tucci is also a hoot as blue-haired TV emcee Caesar Flickerman.

No movie is perfect though, and there were a few points that seemed clear in the book but could have used some clarification onscreen. For example, when Katniss is preparing to leave for the Capitol she tells her nearly comatose mother that she has to step up and take care of her remaining daughter. The mom inexplicably acts like she’s lobotomized or something. In the book it’s explained that she acts this way because her husband (Katniss’ father) was killed in a mine explosion a few years earlier. Would it have killed them to have taken ten seconds to explain that small but very crucial detail?

In the book Effie Trinket was assigned specifically to District 12. Her job was to emcee the selection process, then accompany the Tributes to the Capitol where she would train them to be perfect ladies and gentlemen and hopefully garner audience sympathy. I did not get that impression in the movie. In the movie it seemed to me like she was collecting Tributes from ALL the Districts. Then later she’s just sort of there in the background; I don’t remember her ever once training anyone or giving them advice. And I don’t think the film ever once mentions her name. Her role definitely needed some clarification.

Also, maybe I’m just not the sharpest tool in the shed but it wasn’t immediately clear to me at first that the Games were being held under an enormous dome. I figured it out eventually (mainly when they flashed the faces of the dead Tributes on the “sky” every night), but would it have killed them to include a matte painting of the giant domed structure? They also didn’t make it very clear what was at stake: the winner of the Games is set for life, but in addition wins extra food for their entire District for a whole year.

Despite the fact that I liked it, I still don’t get all the obsession and hoopla over this movie. Kids were lining up days before the film opened just to see it. The movie premiere even made the front page of the local newspaper! Was the opening of a film really front page news? No wonder journalism is dying.

I wonder if this is the Millennial Generation’s Star Wars? If so, considering the subject matter of kids killing kids, we’re in trouble.

Before I move on I’d like to thank the couple who brought their 6 week old baby along with them to the theater and sat in my row during Hunger Games. I could tell by your child’s non-stop wailing that it enjoyed the film as much as I did. Maybe even more! The whole audience appreciated your precious snowflake’s antics during the quieter moments in the film. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get your name and phone number so I could punch you f*ckers in the throat find out when you’re next attending the cinema so I can make sure and tag along with you.

• Straightforward adaptation that should please most fans of the book.

• Good performances by the cast.

• A few key points could have been better clarified.

• Some dodgy effects, particularly the “Girl On Fire” dress that figures so prominently in the book.

A decent adaptation that sticks with you, and apparently the marvel of our age. I give it an A-.

The Raven 
Despite what the poster would have you believe, The Raven is not a movie about a Gothic superhero with wings made of blood red fire. That would have been a much better movie than what we got. Instead, The Raven tells the fictionalized story of Edgar Allen Poe’s last days. 

The Plot:
In 19th Century Baltimore, Detective Emmett Fields investigates a gruesome double murder. He quickly realizes that the crime scene closely resembles one described in one of Poe’s stories. When another Poe-themed murder occurs, Fields realizes there’s a serial killer on the loose who’s modeling his crimes after the author's stories. Fields then enlists the help of Poe himself to help track down the killer before he can kill again.

I have to admit it’s a cool concept, but unfortunately the movie just didn’t live up to its potential. It’s slow moving, dark and dreary. Much like Poe and his work. In fact if you know anything at all about Poe’s life, you’ll know you’re not in for a happy ending.

I’ve always liked John Cusack well enough I suppose, but I have to admit he wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Poe (although he was a better choice than Michael Jackson, who allegedly at one time wanted to play the author in a biopic). He does the best he can with the script he’s given.

When I said that the movie was dark, I didn’t mean just in mood or tone; it’s literally dark. At times I was squinting at the screen trying to figure out what was going on. During some scenes it was more like a radio play than a movie. I can’t believe anyone would purposely make a movie like that; I have to assume this was some glitch on the part of my local theater; that they were trying to conserve the projector bulb or something.

Lastly, the screenplay was written by Ben Livingston and Hanna Shakespeare. Some unsolicited advice for Ms. Shakespeare-- you’d better be a damned good writer if you’re going to go around with a name like that. Even if that’s your honest to god given real name, I’d think about changing it. It’s only going to set you up to fail. You might as well be a basketball player named Chester Dunkenstein.

• Interesting concept.

• If you’re bad at figuring out mysteries (as I am), this one shouldn’t be too tough.

• Slow and plodding storyline and direction.

• Not a lot of fun, especially if you know any details of Poe’s life.

• Dark, nearly impenetrable cinematography.

A cool idea that unfortunately doesn’t live up to its poe-tential (see what I did there?). I give it a D.

Dark Shadows 
Sigh... once again Hollywood plunders TV’s past for more material. Has that trick ever worked? 

The Plot:
In 1776, Angelique Bouchard, who is a witch, is in love with Barnabas Collins. Unfortunately Barnabas only has eyes for Josette du Pres. Angelique uses her powers to cause Josette to leap to her death from a cliff, and turn Barnabas into an immortal vampire.

Cut to 1972, when everyone is either still alive or reincarnated and they do it all over again.

Dark Shadows was a supernatural soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971 (strangely enough, the movie is set in 1972, the year after the series ended). It was extremely popular with younger viewers who watched it when they got home from school.

It was created by Dan Curtis, who also wrote the two very popular Night Stalker TV movies in the 1970s.

When the series first premiered it was just a standard gothic drama; there were no supernatural elements to be found. After a while they added some ghosts into the proceedings, with mixed results. The show struggled along for the first 209 episodes, and then they decided what the hell and went all in: in episode 210 they introduced Barnabas Collins, the tragic, 200 year old vampire. Overnight the ratings soared and the show began featuring werewolves, witches, and even time travel and parallel worlds.

The series was filmed on tape and due to the schedule they rarely if ever stopped to reshoot a scene. As a result the show is riddled with flubbed lines, faulty props and visible stagehands, which gave the series a certain rough charm.

The character of Barnabas Collins was originally intended to last just 13 weeks, but he proved so popular he was kept on and eventually became the star of the series.

I never watched the show much when I was a kid, mainly because I couldn’t. My backwater home town didn’t have an ABC station. Somehow though I was still familiar with the characters and the basic plot line. Maybe I saw it a couple of times at a friend’s house? Perhaps I absorbed it through osmosis from the vast amount of merchandise the show generated? It’s a mystery to me.

You may have noticed by now that I’m spending most of this review talking about the TV show and not the new movie. That’s because I have little or nothing good to say about the new film.

Tim Burton directed Dark Shadows, which stars his little repertory company of Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter.

Visually the film looks great, but unfortunately the storyline (such as it is) is all over the place. How do you go about adapting a long running soap opera into a two hour movie? Well, if you’re the writers of Dark Shadows the answer is to try and cram ALL of it into one film. There’s way too much going on in this movie-- too many characters (none of whom are ever properly developed) and too many plot lines (many of which just trail off without any resolution). Even though I was familiar with most of the characters from the original series, it was a chore trying to figure out who everyone was in the film and how they were related to one another and what the hell they were all doing.

The filmmakers got the names of the characters and locations right, so they obviously did their homework. It’s just frustrating that they took that knowledge into such an appalling direction.

Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins of course. In interviews he gushed about how much he enjoyed watching the character as a kid and how he dreamed of someday portraying him. Well, be careful what you wish for, Johnny. The TV Barnabas, even though he was a vampire, was always the consummate gentleman; a man out of time who still practiced Old World manners. Depp's performance tones down the politeness, ramps up the “fish out of water” angle, and trowels on a healthy dose of horniness for good measure.

The TV Barnabas could easily pass for human most of the time. Only when he was in full vampire mode was it obvious he was something other than a normal person. Depp’s Barnabas is a pasty-faced weirdo with extra finger joints and pointy ears who constantly stands out wherever he goes. Subtlety, thy name is not Tim Burton.

The original Barnabas Collins, actor Jonathan Frid, makes a welcome cameo appearance in the film, along with fellow original costars David Selby (Quentin Collins), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Angelique) and Lara Parker (Joesette du Pres). Unfortunately it’s very literally a “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance, lasting around a second at most. Sadly, Jonathan Frid died the week before the film premiered, missing out on all the renewed interest in the series and his career that the film will no doubt generate.

Lastly the trailer for this film didn’t do it any favors. It made it look like a Beetlejuice type of slapstick comedy, when nothing could have been further from the truth. Not funny enough to be a comedy, too campy to be a drama, the movie’s tone is all over the place.

• Like most Tim Burton movies, it all looks nice.

• Alice Cooper’s cameo appearance. The highlight of the film for me. I used to listen to his music in high school and I forgot how much I liked it. Excuse me while I go fire up Pandora and give him a listen.

• Too many characters to try and keep track of.

• Way too much plot shoehorned into the running time.

• Lack of the theme song! The TV series had a very evocative and eerie theme. They didn’t use a note of it in this abomination. Not even a brief refrain when Barnabas appears. Way to honor your source material, Tim!

Another remake of a classic TV series that goes horribly wrong. I give it a D.

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