Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Avengers

Not going to spoil the plot for anyone.

But The Avengers is a great movie. If I were grading this movie with school paperwork, I would give it an "exceeds expectations." It's a better movie than I even wanted it to be. And this is coming from someone who thinks Joss Whedon is full of shit.

I've been surprised the past week to see people I expected to really dig this movie call it out for not being very good. One person whose opinion I used to respect got very condescending about it--disagree with me all you want, it's just a movie; but don't be the guy lecturing people about how they're wrong to enjoy something because you're the one who can see through the bullshit. I try not to be that guy, because everyone kind of wants to punch that guy. I'll tell you I hated a movie--Avatar, for example--and I'll tell you I hated it in declarative statements (almost like a real writer), but I'm never going to tell you that you're stupid for liking something that gave you enjoyment. At least, I try not to. I'll get annoyed by things that people do, but when it comes to liking a movie, I'm never going to do anyone's thinking for them; I can only tell you what my reactions were.

I loved The Avengers. LOVED it. Loved every single moment of it. Love that this movie even actually exists, something that at one time seemed absolutely impossible. I grew up scouring the movies-in-development sections of Starlog and Comics Scene, waiting for the day that Spider-Man movie they kept talking about was ever going to happen (and 15 years later, it finally did). For a kid whose only chance at superhero movies was once Tim Burton's Batman or waiting for those late-80s/early-90s Incredible Hulk TV movies to come on (remember that woeful portrayal of Daredevil in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, with John Rhys-Davies as a very laid-back Wilson Fisk?), we're living through a wonderful age for superhero flicks.

I was surprised to see people saying this movie wasn't about anything, but was more a series of character moments with a big action climax. That's only partially true, I think. There's an incredible balancing act going on here. What Joss Whedon has to do--and more importantly, actually does--is continue the character development and through-lines of four separate movie series, up Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury to something more than a plot device, make sure everyone actually stays in character, and thoroughly beef up the development of two other characters (Black Widow and Hawkeye) who have had basically no character up until now.

Whedon, to my surprise, manages to bring this all together and make it into an enjoyable product. And yes, it's a product, there's no insight in saying so. All of these movies are products. What Whedon remembers, and someone like Michael Bay never knew, is that it is actually possible to take a special effects blockbuster action product and make it a good story about interesting characters.

So yes, Whedon does get the balance right. He does an exceptionally good job as director and writer of exploring not just the heroism of these characters, but their humanity as well. He follows the decades-old formula of many comic books--gather a bunch of heroes, have them hate each other at first, then forge their alliance in fire--and makes it seem fresh and exciting, merely because no other movie has gotten it so right before.

Of course, it helps that we've had some great movies previously that have introduced us to these characters already. We already know Iron Man, Thor (and Loki), and Captain America from their solo films. Because of the ingenious steps taken in plotting this out in advance, we know a lot of the components, and Whedon isn't burdened with introducing us to the characters all over again. The screenplay just dives right into the characters, which is refreshingly bold.

What's also nice is that, after two movies that were neither complete hits nor complete misses, Whedon reintroduces us to the Hulk in a way that finally finds the character. We spend a not insignificant amount of time with Bruce Banner before we even see him turn into the Hulk, which is exactly the right move. And because we've had two movies of intense angst, we're not seeing a troubled Bruce Banner--though he does have moments when he worries the monster's getting too close to the surface--but a Banner who is making peace with his anger and accepting the balance he's forced to live with. It's a much more exciting character than we got to see in Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. (And it doesn't hurt that Banner has something to do in the flick other than just run from the military while almost kind of being a scientist for a little while.) I also really dig the animation on the Hulk, which is much less like a wrestler and more like some kind of missing link between man and ape; much more primal and powerful, even though he seems shorter than in previous movies, which isn't really a fundamental change; I much prefer that they've humanized him somewhat.

Whedon also excels here with the new characters of Black Widow and Hawkeye. I call Widow a new character because I was never happy with the way she was uncomfortably shoehorned into Iron Man 2 and given basically nothing to do; Whedon has to reinvent her here. Scarlett Johansson gets to play a character--and quite well, actually, reminding me of why I used to think Scarlett Johansson was a capable actress. She's actually got layers; she's neither a superwoman nor the token non-powered character. (Good fight scenes, too; even though she's of course packed into a tight outfit, she doesn't have any of the silly pole-dancing martial arts of her previous appearance.) Jeremy Renner is a likable Hawkeye, and Whedon pulls a good trick by putting Hawkeye in a situation for the first half of the movie that not only pays homage to Hawkeye's origins as a villain in the Marvel Universe, but also gives us an introduction to a character we don't really know yet. He makes you forget just how implausible an archer would be in this world of monsters, magic, aliens, and high tech espionage--and to the extent you remember, you don't really care because the movie thinks it's fun. (And boy have these movies found a great way to get over what seemed a few years ago the insurmountable problem of mixing magic and fantasy with science fiction.) The easy, natural chemistry Renner and Johansson have is one of the movie's many treats.

The actors are all good. Samuel L. Jackson doesn't get much to do beyond glowering, but no one glowers quite like Samuel L. Cobie Smulders fits right in in a way that makes me look forward to seeing more of her in upcoming Marvel Universe movies. Mark Ruffalo is a breath of fresh air, playing Banner as part-hippie, part-science geek. Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Robert Downey Jr. continue to find shades to their characters, giving them moments of recognizable humanity; Downey is especially a force, getting to be the usual cynical smartass, basically acting like he's still starring in his own movie--in a good way. And it needs to be said that, in his way, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is the one who sort of unifies the whole thing, playing a character we've come to know from his appearances in various movies and who stands in for the audience on several occasions.

But Tom Hiddleston. Man, is Tom Hiddleston good. He plays Loki the same way he played the character in Thor, not as a cartoon villain but as an at times sympathetic man torn between the way he regards his brother with both familial love and burning jealousy. There are scenes between Thor and Loki where you can almost see Loki willing to put an end to all of this, but too far in to stop now. Loki is not absolutely a villain, and none of the heroes are absolutely heroes. They all have doubts and moments of cynicism. It's what elevates the movie beyond merely a collection of character moments and an action-packed third act: the continuing thread about what the nature of heroism really is, where it comes from, and how it can be used to affect the world. It was there in Captain America: The First Avenger when Steve Rogers told Dr. Erskine "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies. I don't care where they're from." It was there when Thor learned how to wield his power for others and Tony Stark conquered his daddy issues.

What Whedon introduces here, through Loki, is the idea of humanity as inherently paranoid about their own freedom. That is one thread I'd have liked to see taken further, as it's not the kind of idea that gets any play in summer action flicks. But with the promise of more of these movies in the future, I hope to see it expanded on. (Other, very small thing I didn't like: I miss Captain America's costume from his own movie; I dug it more than the Halloween costume on display here. Also, not really a fan of Alan Silvestri's indistinct score, but that's true of pretty much any Silvestri score that doesn't have the words Back to the Future in the title.)

I had a lot of worries going into this film, even as I was excited about it. I was worried that it would fall into the same trap as the X-Men movies, which have far too many main characters to be satisfying as stories (even the one that's supposed to just be about Wolverine). I was worried it would fall into the same trap as most summer action events and just be too hollow--too concerned with being cool to worry about being human. But Whedon--Joss Whedon, of all people, to my total surprise--gets it exactly right. The Avengers isn't a movie about superheroes who do cool things, it's about people who are also superheroes. It's mythmaking at its finest, and it manages to do it without being precious or apologizing for what it is. And it's amazing. It's clever, it's funny, it's exciting, and it earns its emotions. It reminds me of every reason I ever loved comics in the first place. And it's the first movie I've seen in years that made me want to run right back out and see it again.

(Note: if you go, stay through the end credits. There's a tag after the credits sequence, but there's a second tag at the very end of the credits. 90% of the audience I saw the movie with missed it, and it's a delightful cherry on top of this sundae of a movie. Just stick around, it's worth it.)

Friday, May 04, 2012

Seems Accurate to Me

On the way home from the cinema, discussing the trailers we saw.

BECCA: I don't really think I need to see Frankenweenie.

ME: Oh, yeah?

BECCA: No. Besides, the trailer was the whole thing, and it's not like Tim Burton's going to improve on the short film he made. What were you thinking?

ME: During the trailer I was thinking about how the only emotions Tim Burton ever conveyed in any movie were only there because of Danny Elfman. I mean, the music was beautiful. Danny Elfman's great. If it wasn't for letting Danny Elfman do whatever he wanted with his score, no one would care about Tim Burton's movies. If Tim Burton ever gets some kind of AFI award or the Lifetime Achievement Oscar, I hope he splits it in half and gives one half to Danny Elfman and the other to Rick Heinrichs, because they're the ones doing all the work.

BECCA: Good point.

ME: Tim Burton just does what he did with The Nightmare Before Christmas and takes all the credit.

BECCA: He says "Put more black eye shadow on it!"

ME: (breaks into laughter)

BECCA: The Tim Burton School of Directing: one sentence.

When Suddenly -- !

TV Report as We Head to the Finales

:: Why did I ever think 2 Broke Girls had potential? It's like the show just refuses to grow at all. Doesn't help that this week's script felt like it was an unused one from the beginning of the season with some scenes for Jennifer Coolidge tipped in. I'll watch it as long as Kat Dennings keeps showing up, but that's true of a lot of things. If it got canceled tomorrow, I wouldn't miss it.

:: I would, however, miss Revenge, which had a particularly great episode this week that really raised the stakes. I am so caught up in this show the way I was in Lost and Veronica Mars. Also, now that I'm watching it, I can finally stop thinking immediately of that 20 year-old Kevin Costner movie whenever anyone talks about how much they love Madeline Stowe in Revenge. I spent a few months thinking "Why are people suddenly bringing up that shitty movie?"

:: Also, I've gotten really caught up in Missing. I always liked those fluffy action flicks that Ashley Judd made--none of them stuck with you, but I liked her in them--and this is like one of those for TV. It's basically a mix between Taken and the more recent Bond movies, with Ashley Judd doing what she used to and running around and being smart and getting in fight scenes, all while wearing mom clothes, which is amusing and fun. I don't know, I dig it as the TV equivalent of a B techno thriller. Great supporting cast, too, particularly Cliff Curtis.

:: Dear How I Met Your Mother: you know I still love you, and I even don't mind if Ted never meets the mother until the final episode, because the point of the show if really how everyone grew up. And I admire you for sticking with that, even as people complain that watching the process of becoming emotionally mature isn't funny or whatever their deal is. But can we please not do yet another round of "Ted can't get over Robin"? Because you told us in the very first episode that these two never end up with each other, so there's no real emotional stake here. Unless you're going to pull a surprise ending and have Future Ted really be telling his kids the whole time that he's leaving their mother for Aunt Robin--because this time it's going to work out, I guess--you really need to stop going to this well.

:: Speaking of growing up, I think it's really nice how they've been letting Howard grow up on The Big Bang Theory. Last week's bachelor party episode was pretty wretched (seriously, Stuart and Kripke just are not ever funny, and even poor Wil Wheaton had basically nothing to do but sit there), but that speech Howard said at the end really gave the character some growth; he's my least favorite character on the show, but that was a damn nice moment. This week's episode was pretty exciting just because we got so much momentum on the three major relationships on the show (poor Raj... I really hope he does turn out to be gay, just because I think that would be an uncharacteristic direction for a series like this to go in). The dynamics are finally starting to change.

Someone on the AV Club pointed out that Penny and Leonard sleeping together so close to the finale could mean, on any number of TV series, a pregnancy scare cliffhanger. That would be a great thing to do; having a baby around would really shake up the dynamics. Too many sitcoms stay static, I'd like to see this one, which just has such likable characters, really up its game.

Also, I think the women on the show (Amy, Penny, Bernadette) started being more interesting than the men about a season ago. So I love the directions they were going in this week. Time to start seeing these guys grow up. As much as someone like Sheldon Cooper is capable of growing, anyway. A story is so much more interesting than repeating the same gags.

:: God, how I wish Fred Armisen was leaving Saturday Night Live instead of Andy Samberg.


Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

Reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, a Huffington Post and Washington Post reporter who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 has revealed he's been an illegal immigrant since he came to America in 1993. It's a very powerful piece he's written about it. This is a thorny issue, of course, and I don't really want to have a discussion about it. Just read what he has to say; it's an interesting, touching perspective.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Star Trek 2 Spoilers

A couple of thoughts about the spoilers for JJ Abrams's Star Trek 2, so don't get pissed at me if you read this, because I'm warning you now.


Because spoiler whines are the worst.


Anyway, they keep saying now that it's confirmed by sites like that Benedict Cumberbatch is in fact playing Khan in the sequel. Which I've figured would turn out to be true, and if it is, that's kind of disappointing. One of the things that I really dug about Abrams's reboot is that once he got past things like putting Leonard Nimoy in the flick to reassure the fans scared of change that this is a separate, split-off, alternate universe and all the other stuff that you enjoyed still happened and wasn't pulled from your memories, he had the boldness to just plunge ahead and go make his own movie. I respected that.

So why do Khan again? The last movie ended in a way that had me looking forward to an original Trek adventure; we'd set the stage, and now it was time for the play. And... apparently it's a new version of something we've already seen.

Seriously? Why bother?

This is what I feared when IDW premiered its series of comic books based on the new Trek universe. The first thing they did was retell the story of "Where No Man Has Gone Before," and then they did "The Galileo Seven," and then I stopped reading it because I wasn't really interested in seeing Star Trek's Greatest Hits--only with new likenesses and a hard, cynical edge. What is the point? Are they going to stand on their own legs, or what?

Also in the mix is that supposedly Leonard Nimoy will return as Spock in the new flick, which is, again... I mean, I love Nimoy. Spock is my favorite Star Trek character bar none across every incarnation. But, again, when are you going to stop using the bumpers and just bowl already?

The news that Klingons will be important to the plot is pretty cool, since I just like Klingons. And hey, maybe Abrams and company will find a way to do something really cool and fun with the plot. I hope so. I really don't want to sit there comparing the whole thing to Wrath of Khan, which I still think of as something the franchise has never topped.

Benefit of the doubt, of course. But trepidation.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Surprisingly cute romantic comedy pretending it's not a romantic comedy. Two young people become friends, decide they can also have sex with each other without getting emotionally attached, and, well, you know where that goes because you've seen movies before and you know that Hollywood abhors a romantic vacuum. It's fun getting there, even despite the movie's insistence that flash mobs are somehow fun, interesting, or romantic; seriously, a flash mob is what finally entices Justin Timberlake to move to New York early in the film, when it would have had me running back to the airport. Anyway, Timberlake and Mila Kunis are both sexy, high energy comic actors, and they have good chemistry together, and it feels like a movie that's more fun that it has a right to be. Richard Jenkins is good (as he always is) as Timberlake's father. ***

YOU'RE DARN TOOTIN' (1928) ***
TWO TARS (1928) ****
HABEAS CORPUS (1929) **1/2
BIG BUSINESS (1929) ****
ANGORA LOVE (1929) **1/2
A bunch of silent Laurel and Hardy shorts that showed up on TCM last week. I do adore Laurel and Hardy. Of this group, my favorites were Two Tars and Big Business, mainly because my favorite L&H shorts are the ones where the two engage in retributive destruction. In both, they retaliate against someone destroying their things by causing an equal--and steadily escalating--amount of destruction.

The true story of Bethany Hamilton, a champion surfer who lost her arm to a shark and--if I'm going by what I saw in this surprisingly overlong movie--was a little bummed out about it for a while. It's weird how this movie doesn't really go to the emotional depths of tragedy, and as a result, the emotional highs it wants you to experience don't really resonate. What I mainly learned about Bethany Hamilton is that she lost her arm but it was okay because she loved Jesus. AnnaSophia Robb at least wears a lot of bikinis--I know that's not supposed to be the focus, but I work with what movies give me. None of the actors really have much to work with, and even then Carrie Underwood proves that, as an actor, she's a mediocre singer. The flick's kind of there for way too long and then gone and forgotten. I hope this doesn't come across like I'm slamming the real Bethany Hamilton or something. I'm just looking at a movie and getting bored out of my mind by it. **

TRUMBO (2007)
An interesting look at the blacklisted writer, filtered through the eyes of his son and the touching performances of several actors. This documentary--crossed with a stage piece--uses Dalton Trumbo's words in interviews and letters to examine the ramifications of Hollywood's shameful blacklist on Trumbo's personal life. It's a more intimate look at how it affected not just his career, but his relationship with his family, his community, and his country. I was quite moved by it. ****

A Rudy Ising Barney the Bear cartoon; honestly, I think it's the first I've ever seen. It doesn't stand out much for me in a time of Donald Duck and Tom and Jerry, but it was cute. I sure love that burro. ***

A poignant, touching film about a surprising pen-pal relationship between a young Australian girl and an older, autistic New Yorker that carries on for 20 years. There are a lot of themes touched on here--obesity, child neglect, depression, social anxieties--but at its core it's about the way friendship can take us by surprise and take us to places we never imagined our lives would go. Adam Elliot's films are always darkly witty, and his first feature doesn't feel padded or compromised; his sense of humor is still evident, as is his ability to make you feel sad and uplifted at the same time. Beautiful work. Excellent voiceovers, too, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman and narrator Barry Humphries. ****

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Hulu Decided to Pull a Netflix

This doesn't affect me too badly, because I don't really use Hulu (I don't care much for it), but apparently Hulu is now going to force you to be a cable subscriber in order to access its service... which kind of seems to defeat the entire purpose of using Hulu.

So, is this where I get to be a total asshole and tell Hulu users to stop whining and just pay the money? Because when we dared complain about the Netflix price hike, that's all I heard from anyone.

(Note: it's not whiny in either case. I feel there's probably some asshole reading this that I have to clarify that for.)

Donald Duck According to Dogme '95 Principles

Castle vs. Zombies

Wow, am I glad that next week is Castle's season finale. I need a summer off from this show (and I hope it's a summer where the writers and producers take a serious look at what they've been up to this season and figure out what worked and what didn't, because there is a lot that seems broken right now).

I know people who think I've been unduly hard on this show, but this season was pretty brutal. I would argue that the last 12, maybe 13 episodes of this show have been varying degrees of awful, no matter how many decent character moments they had peppered throughout. But the reality for me is that this show used to pop with so much energy and easy charisma that they could introduce the stupidest elements into it--plots involving steampunk, vampires, wine enthusiasts, war over local pizzas, or FBI agents doing extended commercials for touch screen LCD televisions--and they could still build fun, ludicrous, thoroughly enjoyable episodes around them. Now they have to resort to fads like zombies.

A brief aside here: I hate zombies. Zombies are the dumbest fucking thing ever. As of last night, I officially hate zombies more than I hate vampires, because at least there's been the occasional decent vampire story in the last thirty years. Zombies? It's all been done. They are one plot device, repeated to the point of redundancy, and I've yet to understand why they're so fascinating to people. The internet has ruined a lot of things--ninjas, pirates, Chuck Norris (although, really, Chuck Norris was never once cool to begin with)--but its obsession with zombies has infected so much more of pop culture. By the time the flash mob of New York hipsters pretending to be zombies started shuffling up towards Castle and Beckett (complete with pointless suspense builder and commercial break cliffhanger, as if the zombies were ever going to turn out to be authentic, because even this show isn't that silly), I was urging them to just put on the "Thriller" video and get fucking over it. Seriously, it felt like Count Floyd should have hosted the whole thing; at least then it would have been stupid on purpose.

But as much as I hate zombies, this episode--and this last half-season--had so many more problems than a bunch of idiots playing out the latest stupid fad. The episode has been one of a number in the last few months that I had a really hard time paying attention to or even wanting to pay attention to. The premise was so thin that it really had to throw all of the zombie crap in just to move the plot along. Here's something every writer of Castle needs to do from now on: re-read your draft; if there's a point in there where Scooby and Shaggy could easily walk in and get chased by a ghost with zero interruption to the plot, you need to rewrite it.

Seriously, their little plan to get the murderer to confess was not only irritatingly dumb, it also produced a confession totally inadmissible in a court of law (duress, anyone?). And a law student seriously forgets to just refuse to answer without a lawyer present? And the whole plot device was ripped off from The Serpent and the Rainbow. Fuck, come on. Did we really, really have to do zombies? At least they managed to prove me wrong when I said that the holodeck fantasy episode was the worst thing Castle would ever do...

Anyway, at least in the last few seconds they decided to finally have their used-to-be-smart-and-perceptive characters start acting like goddamn grownups about their feelings for each other. Can't wait to see that resolved next week when we see the Conspiracy Theory Contrivance Generator get cranked up again, only to have Beckett turn her back on Castle at the end of the episode because she feels betrayed when she finds out that he's been keeping a secret from her about the conspiracy just to keep her safe. Oh, and it will also manage not to resolve the conspiracy surrounding her mother's murder.

I don't know this for sure; I've just seen television before, and Castle has decided to become just another TV show.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Song of the Week: "Move On Up"

Just because I haven't had Curtis Mayfield up in years. The greatest track from an album of great tracks, his 1970 solo album (after nearly a decade with the Impressions) Curtis. 9 minutes of sublime bliss.

The Kind of Thing That Makes People Assume All Geeks Are Sexist Assholes

Fucking fanboys. We get it, alright: you love everything except when you deeply hate it.

I'm late to the party on this one, but I've been limiting myself from reading anything more about The Avengers until now. My excitement is already whipped up, and spending all of April just stirring that wasn't something I wanted to do because enthusiasm will only last for so long. So I finally read Amy Nicholson's review of The Avengers on Box Office Magazine, and... what's the problem, guys? She liked the movie. It's a positive and fair review. Is it just that it fell short of being 100% adored with it? Is it that she's a woman? Because judging by a lot of the comments, a great deal of it has to do with her being a woman.

Really, it's both. It's exactly like fans issuing death threats back when some critics dared not like the overrated, bloated, nonsensical, surprisingly forgettable The Dark Knight back in 2008. Nothing like watching a bunch of idiots get all worked up, falling all over themselves in a mad rush to defend a film THEY'D NOT YET EVEN SEEN as a work of unmitigated genius. People who not only had lost any semblance of objectivity, but who took it as a personal insult that someone might not be completely enamored of what is, after all, just a movie.

But because the critic in question is a woman this time--who is really only being a little bit critical of a movie she calls solid and exciting and fun and, once again, who is criticizing a movie THE FANBOYS HAVE NOT YET EVEN SEEN--then we get this incredible amount of sexism pouring forth, because the internet has no shortage of immature total asshole boys who take "This film should be more ambitious" as a personal slight to be answered with "Just stick to rom-coms, bitch."

Way to not be a stereotype, guy who's probably still whining about how Boba Fett died.

This is the kind of shit--and you can see it everywhere in fandom, and on the internet--that serves as a constant reminder why I can't be an active part of fandom anymore. Because apparently you have to be a complete moron.