Friday, May 25, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

Year 4, Day 146 - 5/25/12 - Movie #1,144

BEFORE: Yes, I gave myself the day off yesterday - we drove upstate on Wednesday, after our trip got delayed by a neighborhood stray cat who showed up on our porch, pregnant, just as we were packing up the car.  I'd been meaning to catch her and take her to the vet to get spayed, to help control the number of strays on our block, but I hadn't seen her in a while.  When I brought out the cat carrier, she jumped right in, so I figured it was fate, or else she understood more about the process than I realized.  Anyway, after that we drove up to see some of my wife's friends who are staying in an RV park for the summer. We haven't had a road trip in a while - though I was still concerned my number would come up in the jury pool. 

After a burger cook-out and a tour of the Culinary Institute of America, I learned that I was released from the jury duty obligation, so I could finally relax, go out to a brewpub, and then catch a movie on Day 3.  I did go through the trouble of reconfiguring my chain to accommodate the trip, plus I did the prep-work last month of seeing the other three Marvel movies that led into this one.  With 30 years of comic book collecting under my belt, a film like this is pure catnip to me - this is the payoff. 

Chris Evans carries over from "The Losers" -

THE PLOT: Nick Fury brings together a team of super-humans to form The Avengers to help save the Earth from Loki and his army.

AFTER: What a relief, this movie was as awesome as I hoped it would be, and as awesome as other people have said it was.  Now my friends can stop dancing around the plot and avoiding spoilers and we can have conversations about it.  It's not exactly perfect (what is?) but it's darn, darn close.

For starters, it's a bit long, by about 10 minutes or so.  I bet if someone really tried they could trim 10 minutes off the running time and not sacrifice anything.  However, the film does cover a lot of ground, and they did give each and every character a lot to do.  It takes an hour just to get all the heroes assembled, and when they finally get on the same page, there is some bickering - I'd say they could have cut this, but I do understand why it's there.  When you get these different alpha personalities together - the cocky billionaire, the outdated patriot, the arrogant god of thunder - they won't mesh unless a disaster forces them to.

Of course, the standard comic-book staple is to have two heroes fight when they meet for the first time.  It's one of those comedy-of-errors things, and I admit that getting two characters in the same room and having them shake hands and exchange business cards wouldn't be nearly as exciting.  Here's where this film really delivers - answering those "Who would win in a fight?" fanboy questions.  So we get Iron Man vs. Thor, Hulk vs. Thor, Black Widow vs. Hawkeye - all great matchups.  These are the moments that cause nerdgasms.  I'm all for seeing the Avengers sit around in a mansion and play poker, but they went a different way with this, and I respect that.

My history with Avengers comics goes back 30 years - to an event in 1983 called Secret Wars.  I'd been reading Fantastic Four and starting to pick-up on the X-Men, when they did a crossover limited series in which all of the major Marvel heroes and villains were whisked away across the universe for a bizarre cosmic competition of sorts.  They came back an issue later with different costumes and different team line-ups, and you had to read this other series over the next 12 months to find out what happened.  This limited series was like a gateway drug for me, and I got hooked. 

The Avengers at the time had a line-up of some heavy hitters like Thor and Captain America, but also some second stringers like Wasp, She-Hulk, the substitute Captain Marvel, and the substitute Iron Man (James Rhodes). Hawkeye was there too, I think he came over for one of those poker games, and got caught up in the madness.  While the main team was on the other side of the universe, they called in the reserves - the main team came back, and there were just too many Avengers.  So they opened a franchise in California, and that's when I really became a fan of Hawkeye, as the leader of the West Coast Avengers.

Hawkeye may be my favorite Avenger, since in a world of gods, mutants and super-soldiers, he's just a guy with a bow and arrows.  Sure, he's got trick arrowheads, but for the most part he's got a human skill that he just practiced and practiced at, a regular guy who got so good at something simple that it put him on a team with Iron Man and Thor.  I guess you can say Black Widow's the same way with espionage, but archery seems like a more tangible skill.  The film gets Hawkeye right, and also starts him out as sort of a villain, which is also in line with his origin in the comic books.  The character has been around since the mid-1960s, but I don't think the writers really knew what to do with him until the mid-1980s.
The film also got Hulk right, on the third try in recent years.  Both of the Hulk films fell into a simple trap, since they assumed that the bestial Hulk needed to be treated as a villain, or at least an anti-hero.  This made the character harder for the audience to accept.  Hulk's no more of a villain than an animal, or a savage Wolverine, but when he's shown fighting the U.S. Army, it's hard to see him any other way.  In 30 years I've seen a lot of different takes on the Hulk - gray Hulk, green Hulk, dumb Hulk, smart Hulk, Vegas gangster Hulk, future warlord Hulk, etc. I've seen Bruce Banner separated from Hulk at least twice, turning his story into more of a Frankenstein tale than a Jekyll-and-Hyde one.  But here the Hulk is (somewhat) controllable, the two halves work together (more or less) to make a coherent whole, plus he's told to smash the bad guys with abandon, so we can finally cheer him on as he lets loose.

The second half of the film is action, action, action. As it should be - you get these heavy-hitters together, I expect nothing less.  My one complaint, without giving anything away (since it's mentioned in the IMDB plotline) concerns Loki teaming up with aliens.  This isn't just apples and oranges, it's more like apples and oil filters.  The worlds of Asgard are so rich, and full of villains - what's wrong with attacking Earth with frost giants, the Midgard Serpent, the legions of Hel or the dark elves of Svartalfheim?  A war between Earth and one of the other 9 worlds, like Jotunheim or Niffleheim, would have been a more logical progression from the "Thor" film, and would have united the Avengers just as well.  They can do aliens in the next film -

Also starring Robert Downey, Jr. (last seen in "Iron Man 2"), Gwyneth Paltrow (ditto), Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "Captain America: The First Avenger"), Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "Where the Wild Things Are"), Scarlett Johansson (also last seen in "Iron Man 2"), Chris Hemsworth (last seen in "Thor"), Jeremy Renner ("Thor"), Tom Hiddleston ("Thor"), Stellan Skarsgard ("Thor"), Clark Gregg ("Thor"), Cobie Smulders (last seen in "The Slammin' Salmon"), the voice of Paul Bettany ("Iron Man 2"), with cameos from Powers Boothe (last seen in "Nixon"), Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton and Stan Lee.

RATING: 9 out of 10 trading cards

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Losers

Year 4, Day 144 - 5/23/12 - Movie #1,143

BEFORE: I've been on jury duty telephone standby for the last few days - which means I was assigned a juror number, and there's a phone hotline I call every day after 5 pm, and it tells me whether or not I need to report to a NYC court the next morning to serve as a juror.  So far I've been lucky, the message tells me I don't have to show up, but I need to call again the next day.  But, we made plans to go out of town before the big holiday weekend, and I just know that if I cancel the trip, my juror number is not going to come up - but as soon as I drive upstate, the message is going to tell me I need to report.  I can just feel it in my gut, Murphy's Law in action.  I should have postponed it two weeks ago, and now it's too late to do that - I just have to let it be whatever it's going to be.  

At least my movie chain is back on track - and Jason Patric carries over from "Speed 2", just like I planned.

THE PLOT: After being betrayed and left for dead, members of a CIA black ops team root out those who targeted them for assassination.

AFTER: I had high hopes for this one, it seemed like it would be a good blend of action and dark humor, which it is, but I can't help feeling that it's also a bit generic.  A team of ragtag mercenary soldiers with different skill sets, betrayed and framed - isn't that also the set-up of "The A-Team"?   and there's a bit in this film where the team boosts an armored car - isn't that straight out of "The Italian Job"?  OK, so they did put a bit of a new twist on that. 

Maybe I've just seen too many action films, or too many groups of close-knit bickering soldier-types, fighting for just causes - or at least causes that are slightly more just than the other guys' causes.  I was looking for wild, outside-the-box operations, and this one aimed high, but kind of didn't deliver.  Come on, I expect more from a team that has BOTH the guy who played The Comedian in "Watchmen" and the guy who played Captain America/Human Torch.

Explosions?  Sure.  Stunts?  I suppose.  Trick-shots with a sniper rifle?  OK, that last one was a bit of coolness - but other than that, I didn't find much that was unique here.  Sorry, I guess I'm jaded.  I also had a problem with the tone, the level of humor/silliness in an action film.  Was this meant to be a comedic parody of action films, or the ultimate expression of them?

And I know it's a movie convention, to fake one's own death - but can anyone point to a case in the real world where someone actually got away with it?  I guess we wouldn't know, because if we did know, that would mean they failed.  For that matter, what was the first instance of a movie or literary character being brought back from the dead - apart from Jesus, that is.  I have a feeling that it might be Sherlock Holmes, but I'm not sure how to prove it. 

Also starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan (last seen in "Jonah Hex"), Chris Evans (last seen in "Captain America: The First Avenger"),  Zoe Saldana (last seen in "Avatar"), Idris Elba (last seen in "Thor"), Holt McCallany (last seen in "Alien 3").

RATING: 5 out of 10 soccer balls

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Speed 2: Cruise Control

Year 4, Day 143 - 5/22/12 - Movie #1,142

BEFORE: Another film that was recently added, once I knew I'd be dealing with special agents and terrorists and such.  Considering the film's bad reputation, I was willing to screen this much later, but once I shuffled the list a bit, I needed the linking - Liam Neeson from "The A-Team" was also in a film called "Gun Shy" with Sandra Bullock (last seen in "Forces of Nature").  But is this film as bad as people seem to think?  Hey, it's probably better than "Gun Shy".

THE PLOT: A computer hacker breaks into the computer system of a cruise liner and sets it speeding on a collision course into a gigantic oil tanker.

AFTER: Well, it's no "Speed".  For that matter, it's no "A-Team" either.  Perhaps it more closely resembles "Die Hard" (though the lead is no Bruce Willis) but set on a doomed boat, like "Poseidon Adventure".  The plight of the few passengers who weren't able to exacuate, forced to work together, reminded me of that classic disaster film, also set on a cruise ship.

I've been on two cruises, and hopefully this film doesn't deter me from taking a third someday.  The film does get some things right about cruises, like the wonders (?) of meeting other passengers at dinner, they annoyances of overly zealous photographers, and the mildly horrible entertainment (though this cruise features 80's band UB40, I suppose that's a step up).  But mostly a cruise is a chance to explore (eat) and relax (eat) and spend time with someone you love (while eating).  Seriously, though, I did enjoy myself on both trips, and only a minimal amount of time was spent wondering what I'd do if the ship started sinking in shark-infested waters.

Here a disgruntled ex-employee of the cruise line with an axe to grind takes over the ship, and since he designed all of their computer systems, he knows everything about how to use them to take control and make all of the passengers and crew head for the lifeboats.  Again, the chances of this happening on your cruise are very remote - the ship is much more likely to run aground due to a piloting error, like what happened on that Italian cruise earlier this year. 

Of course, only one man has the drive, the abilities, and the technical know-how to go up against this mad genius - plus he's fighting to save his girlfriend, who seems to keep falling for these gung-ho cops/adrenaline junkies despite her previously failed relationships with them.  No, things didn't work out with the cop played by Keanu Reeves who saved her in the first film - I don't suppose they would have, unless Keanu had been willing to star in the sequel.

I didn't find this to be the worst film of all time (that would be "Radioland Murders"), or the worst action/disaster film (that would be "The Concorde: Airport '79"), or even the worst Sandra Bullock film (that would be "Premonition").  It's servicable, which sometimes is the best you can settle for.
I don't even have any nitpick points tonight, though the list of goofs on the IMDB suggest that the screenwriter knew close to nothing about how a cruise ship works.

Also starring Jason Patric (last seen in "Sleepers"), Willem Dafoe (last seen in "The English Patient"), Temuera Morrison (the future Jango Fett, last seen in "Green Lantern"), with cameos from Colleen Camp, Kimmy Robertson, Tim Conway.

RATING: 4 out of 10 lifeboats

Monday, May 21, 2012

The A-Team

Year 4, Day 142 - 5/21/12 - Movie #1,141

BEFORE: Liam Neeson carries over as the spies/special agent chain kicks into high gear.

THE PLOT: A group of Iraq War veterans looks to clear their name with the U.S. military, who suspect the four men of committing a crime for which they were framed.

AFTER: I didn't watch the original TV series very often - I caught a few episodes, probably, but quickly determined there was a formula.  Find a cause, battle the bad guy, devise a plan, build some stuff, shoot some stuff.  Crack some corny jokes, get B.A. on the plane, and light up a cigar.  Network TV can be comforting when it offers up a resolution once a week, but this doesn't always translate into a successful movie.

I think this film worked it out, though, by dividing the plot into three sections: the caper that brings the team together, the caper where the team gets hosed, and the revenge caper.  So, it's kind of like "The Italian Job", with an origin story tacked on the front.

The plans here are very elaborate, especially the third one which gets visually compared to the "cups and balls" magic routine/shell game, but the reference doesn't really work.  Maybe it was supposed to, but we don't get to see the part of the plan that was meant to resemble that.  Too bad.  The second caper is more exciting, but relies on screenwriter science rather than actual science - special effects used to make the caper work according to the plot, and not necessarily to the laws of physics.

Actually, get the Mythbusters on the line for several of the stunts, if they haven't done a show on this already.  Specifically, the helicopter stunts, the airplane disaster, and what follows after that.  I just don't think the force of gravity is counteract-able, that's all I'm sayin'.   If a person fell out of a plane, with no parachute and fired a machine gun at the ground before impact, do you think that would save their life?  No?  Well, then the physics in this film don't work either.

It's a fine line, showing the A-Team confusing their enemies without confusing the audience.  I had to run a few sequences over and over just to see what the moves were - which implies either bad camera work or bad scripting, if the elements of the plan aren't being highlighted as they occur.

NITPICK POINT: The team goes to a lot of trouble to clear their names after the death of one person - but how many other people got hurt or killed in the process of clearing their names?  Though I will concede that the film does mention that being wrongfully imprisoned does not make breaking out of prison legal.

Also starring Bradley Cooper (last seen in "He's Just Not That Into You"), Jessica Biel (last heard in "9"), Sharlto Copley (last seen in "District 9"), Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Patrick Wilson (last seen in "The Phantom of the Opera"), Gerald McRaney, Brian Bloom

RATING: 6 out of 10 bazookas

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Year 4, Day 141 - 5/20/12 - Movie #1,140

BEFORE: My original plan was to follow "Disorganized Crime" with "The Losers", with crime films sort of leading me neatly into spy/action films, and then that would have allowed me to sneak in "The Avengers" this weekend.  But, plans got changed and we drove out to Long Island for a "Chinese Auction" event, a (fortunately non-denominational) church fund-raising thing, where people pay for tickets and then place their tickets in little cups next to items they want to try and win, and then the items are raffled off.  I wagered nearly all of my tickets on a game of Jenga, and ended up winning it - based on the quality of the other auction items, I think I made the right move.

So I've had to shuffle a few things around - I'll try to get to "The Avengers" before the end of the week.  This may result in a thematic break tonight, or at least a hiccup - but I can't be sure, since I don't fully know what this film is about, and therefore where it should fit in the chain.  Is this a spy film like "Taken", or a mind-trip like "Memento", or is it both, like "The Bourne Identity"?  I don't know since I haven't seen it, and that's maddening.

Actually, this is the 2nd or 3rd time I've shaken up the schedule lately - I was planning to go from cop films to "The Three Musketeers" to "Les Miserables" and lead into a Liam Neeson chain that way, but it felt a little forced, so I went a different way and still ended up here.  At least I can link from Ruben Blades of "Disorganized Crime" to Aidan Quinn (last seen in "Legends of the Fall"), since they co-starred in "The Lemon Sisters".

THE PLOT:  A man awakens from a coma, only to discover that someone has taken on his identity and that no one, (not even his wife), believes him. With the help of a young woman, he sets out to prove who he is.

AFTER: This starts out like a mind-wipe film, with one of those Hollywood-type accidents where someone gets hit on the head and loses his memory (or does he?) and then struggles to remember who he is and how he came to be in the hospital.  The problem is, what he remembers doesn't seem to fit with reality, as the people he remembers don't remember him.

For a brief while, it sort of became another kind of film, one where reality itself is subjective, memories are not necessarily true, and the fear this invokes gets carried over to the audience - what is reality, anyway?  How do we know that we wake up in the same reality every morning, if memory itself is not fixed?  How do we know we're not all just brains in jars in some cosmic lab table, and everything we see and feel is some kind of experiment?  And if the universe was shrinking, and everything was getting smaller, including our measuring devices, how would we know?  But I digress...

There are other kinds of fear portrayed here, too - fear of being in a foreign country without I.D., fear of car accidents, fear of hospitals, fear of anesthesia, fear of the government, fear of being followed.  

Eventually this becomes a third type of film, as the facts become known.  Without spoiling anything (I hope) let me just say that I'm comfortable with this film's placement in the chain.  But that's a good sign of a well-written screenplay - as the characters learn more information, the different possible explanations for what's really going on are slowly eliminated, and we the audience are able to piece together the true facts as the main character does the same.  For once, the protagonist wasn't ahead of me, and I wasn't ahead of him either.

It might be a lengthy and outlandish explanation, but it is a sufficient one.  Nearly all of my nitpick points were negated as the film neared the climax, I'm left with just one question, but I can't really bring it up.  I'll just imagine that a supposedly smart character can still make a very dumb mistake, and then everything's wrapped up in a neat little package.

Also starring Liam Neeson (last heard in "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader"), Diane Kruger (last seen in "Inglourious Basterds"), January Jones (last seen in "X-Men: First Class"), Frank Langella (last seen in "Cutthroat Island").

RATING: 6 out of 10 security cameras