Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Shaw Brothers Vol. 1

After watching The Raid: Redemption (reviewed here) and The Avengers (here), I decided to delve into some movies that combine elements of both: martial arts, and in a sense, superheroes. This led me to the Shaw Brothers Studio martial arts films. Though I mentioned several kung fu/wuxia films made in the last twenty years that I prefer to The Raid, I felt it necessary to go even further back to the classics of the genre. If you want to see where Quentin Tarantino got most of his inspiration for Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and 2 (2004), this is the place to look. Be aware, however, that not all Shaw Brothers martial arts pictures are created equal. Actually, most of them hit just about every bullet point on the kung fu movie stereotype list. Laughable dubbing (though I highly recommend going with subtitled versions), over-the-top stock sound effects, goofy attempts at humor, and the calling out of special moves like, “Windmill Tiger!” Many of them are a lot of fun though, and a few manage to rise out of the genre's looming shadow. First, I'll take a look at three made in the same year.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): 7 out of 10

Directed by Lau Kar-leung, this highly entertaining and influential kung fu movie is considered by some to be at the pinnacle of the genre. Lau Kar-leung happened to be a top notch choreographer, often working in that capacity on Chang Cheh's films, and his talents are readily apparent in 36th Chamber. This is a refreshing movie because the action sequences do not merely “hold up”, they are arguably superior to most of the unimaginative garbage that passes for action today. The camera moves in dynamic fashion, but the editing doesn't chop everything up, discombobulating the whole endeavor the way Hollywood films often do.

Our hero is San Te (Gordon Liu), a student whose teacher speaks out against the oppressive Manchu government. San Te becomes part of the rebellion, but when the uprising is squashed, his teacher and family members are murdered. He flees to the secluded Shaolin Temple, where the monks allow him to train in martial arts. He must conquer the temple's thirty-five “chambers”, each presenting a unique challenge that can take months to master. Once he is physically and mentally prepared, he returns to the world from whence he came, to aid the people against their oppressors.

Some pictures are geared toward both sexes, but 36th Chamber is clearly a man's movie. Without a trace of romance or even a hint of interest in the opposite sex, the focus is entirely on a man who loses everything, then hones his body and mind into deadly weapons. Rocky (1976) may have come first, but 36th Chamber is the quintessential “training” film, and has inspired countless movies in the last thirty-four years. Quentin Tarantino calls it, “the third greatest kung fu movie of all time,” and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan is fanatically obsessed with Gordon Liu, Shaw Brothers movies, and 36th Chamber in particular. I actually think the chamber challenges go on for too long, but in the final act everything pays off. All things considered, this is good stuff indeed.

Five Deadly Venoms (1978): 6 out of 10

This film, moreso than the other two, really blends the superhero and martial arts genres. A superhero, like those recently seen in The Avengers, is a person with a certain skill set (super powers) and a very short list of weaknesses. Five Deadly Venoms gives us a quintet of masked characters with bizarre fighting styles, each based upon a venomous insect/reptile: Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad. The Lizard can defy gravity by walking on walls, for example, and the Toad is invulnerable to any attacks unless they are concentrated on a very small, hidden weak spot.

The leader of the Poison Clan, as this group of warriors has come to be known, doesn't have much time left to live and he's concerned that some of the clan may be using their powers for evil. Yan Tieh (Chiang Sheng), his young student, is sent to warn a former clan teacher who has collected a fortune over the years through their activities. The clan master fears that his wealth will make him a target of his former pupils. The problem is that even the clan master doesn't know the identities of the students, they all wore masks during training, and some of the students don't know each other because they trained at different times.

Surprisingly, this is not a great martial arts showcase, certainly not on the level of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or Crippled Avengers. It's more of a mystery, and a pretty well made one at that. There are some good fight scenes, of course, but what makes them enjoyable is the intrigue and finding out who's who based on their unique styles. This is actually one of the best screenplays Chang Cheh ever had to work with, if you ask me. Sure, it's a little cheesy, but at the same time it's smarter than it has any right to be. Plus, it's hugely influential, and for good reason. Not only do we see its echoes in Kill Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and Kung Fu Panda's Furious Five, it is also referenced in the music of Tupac Shakur and the Wu-Tang Clan.

Crippled Avengers (1978): 5 out of 10

Let's get something out of the way right off the bat: this is an absolutely ridiculous movie. However, as ridiculous movies go, it has to be some kind of masterwork. Most bad movies are just that, offering no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but Crippled Avengers is a different beast. While it's true that cinematic pleasures of a more guilty variety simply do not exist, at least it's a pleasure, right? Not many filmmakers have successfully pulled off the strange balancing act that Chang Cheh does here. It's a surprising amount of campy fun and many people consider this to be the best of the numerous “Venom Mob” films.

Only four members of the Venom Mob seen in Five Deadly Venoms come back to play here, but that's plenty. In the opening sequence a kung fu master, Dao Tian-du (Chen Kuan-tai), comes home to discover his wife murdered and his son an amputee. Despite killing or crippling those responsible, including their offspring many years later, the seeds of hatred continue to bear fruit as father and son (the latter now outfitted with metal arms that fire darts) terrify the townspeople. The main characters all manage to upset these two, and find themselves punished accordingly. So our heroes are eventually comprised of a deaf-mute, a blind man, a guy with no legs, and an idiot (his head was squeezed in a vice, you see). Together they must put an end to Dao Tian-du's tyranny.

The production values feel a bit less polished than those in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Five Deadly Venoms, but the fight choreography is right up there with 36th Chamber, if not better. These guys were all genuine athletes and incredible physical specimens, something we don't quite grasp in Five Deadly Venoms. Here they really get to show what they can do. The hoop fighting sequences are pretty incredible, akin to something one might see in a circus tent. Of course it's all rather goofy, the acting can be lousy at times, and the story has little to recommend it. Having said that, it's almost impossible to find the film boring. Most viewers will have a good time despite themselves.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Top 10 Long Tracking Shots

In my review of The Avengers, I mentioned the tracking shot that takes place during the final battle. It was very cool, allowing us to see all the heroes fighting their way through New York City in one relatively brief unbroken shot. I wouldn't have tipped my hat if it wasn't good, I openly concede it was a fine piece of work. It wasn't Joss Whedon's first attempt at a tracking shot either, and everyone should check out his even better four-and-a-half minute effort (with one hidden cut) in 2005's Serenity.

The only problem I have with the terrific success of The Avengers is that youngsters with no knowledge of cinema are pouring out of the woodwork to celebrate the tracking shot I mentioned. Most of them probably didn't even know what a tracking shot was until they read about this one. Frankly, the praise is incredibly over-the-top, and among these kids Joss Whedon is now a visionary cinematic artist on par with Orson Welles. Look, he's talented and I loved The Avengers, but give me a break...

To counter this foolishness I decided to make a Top 10 list of my favorite tracking/Steadicam shots. I can't objectively say these are the Top 10 tracking shots in cinema history, but I can objectively say that every one of them is better than what we saw in The Avengers. I rated these based on the following factors: shot length, artistry, technical proficiency, the purpose it serves in the film, and what I perceive to be the overall level of difficulty required to pull it off.

First I will acknowledge some of the tracking shots that do not appear on my list, but have been featured on similar lists. You won't find Brian De Palma here; nothing from Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Raising Cain (1992), Carlito's Way (1993), or Snake Eyes (1998). In my view, the Grand Central Station sequence in Carlito's Way is schooled by the shots on my list, and the opening of Snake Eyes had “invisible” cuts that were just too obvious. If I wanted hidden cuts I would put Hitchcock's Rope (1948) on here, though I suppose it would be characterized as a “long take” rather than a tracking shot. De Palma's opening shot in Bonfire of the Vanities is four minutes and forty-three seconds of splendid, must-see Steadicam work, unfortunately marred by some average acting and overall goofiness. Actually, the De Palma shot that almost made the list is one of his most subtle: the ballot pick-up and prom queen announcement scene in Carrie (1976).

There is no P.T. Anderson because while I love his tracking shots in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (2000), I can't shake the feeling that he's a grand imitator. I see elements in those shots (and his films in general) that remind me too much of Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, and Welles. It bugs me a bit, and his shots aren't necessarily better than any I've listed, regardless. As for Jean-Luc Godard's celebrated sequence in Week End (1968), I felt the camera there was a bit on the static side, as moving cameras go, simply gliding left to right for nearly seven and a half minutes.

Kubrick's body of work offers dozens of exquisite examples, but I'm not sure any single shot belongs in the Top 10 (if one did, it would likely be from Paths of Glory or Eyes Wide Shut, not The Shining). Antonioni ended The Passenger (1975) with a fantastic, slow moving long take, but does it really fit the bill as a Top 10 tracking shot? Spielberg has done several, including that rather impressive sequence with the mechanical spiders scanning the residents of an apartment building in Minority Report (2002). Dario Argento threw a gratuitous one into his film Tenebre (1982). There's also a fine example in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), but it sits just outside the Top 10, for me. The brutal fight scene in Oldboy (2003) is topped by a particular entry that made my list, the hospital shootout in John Woo's Hard-Boiled (1992) came close, and the six minute, forty-seven second opening to Johnnie To's Breaking News (2004) actually did make my first Top 10 draft.

The fact is, there are plenty of exceptional tracking shots in the cinema. There is one in Murnau's Sunrise (1927) that I simply couldn't find a place for, despite how much I love it, but I suppose it's not terribly complex by today's standards anyway (still gorgeous though). I would like to add something by Andrei Tarkovsky, perhaps that brilliant bit with the burning cabin in Mirror (1975) or the final shot of The Sacrifice (1986), but the former is on the short side while the latter resembles more of a static long take.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) has that terrific shot near the end, and Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) has a phenomenal one to open the film. There are stunning examples in Hitchcock's work, and in the oeuvres of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Renoir, Truffaut, Angelopoulos, Ruiz, Jansco, and Ophuls. Then there is Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1967), the greatest epic in cinematic history and one of the most stunning tour de force spectacles these eyes have ever seen. That puppy is loaded with brilliant tracking shots, often in succession.

All of these filmmakers are easily on the level of those who made the list. Let's face it, a great tracking shot may be worthy of praise, but it doesn't make a movie by itself. Unless one shot is the movie, as was the case with Sokurov's Russian Ark. This claim has been made about a few others, including PVC-1 (2007), a Columbian film, and a 2010 picture from Uruguay called The Silent House (the 2011 U.S. remake was done in twelve minute takes and stitched together to appear as a single shot). While I'm not a huge fan of Russian Ark, it is the definitive single shot film because it's more complex and elaborate than the others, in addition to being a true single shot.

To be perfectly clear, I have more respect for real tracking shots than those that are patched together from various shots. Believe me, I know Children of Men (2006) is a marvelous technical achievement. I understand how much work went into pulling off those extended shots of the car under attack and the long tracking shot sequence near the end. I also know that neither one was truly a single shot. A 2010 film from Argentina, The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), has one of the finest looking aerial/tracking shots I've seen, but it was a patchwork job too. Still impressive, certainly, just not as impressive as the real thing.

For a comparison, I'll go back to War and Peace. What makes it so phenomenal is knowing everything is real. 120,000 soldiers, incredible tracking shots, pyrotechnics, crane shots soaring above vast armies, aerial shots of the battlefield on a scale like Lord of the Rings; all without computer animation. War and Peace wouldn't be War and Peace had it been aided by computers, it simply wouldn't be as jaw dropping. Period.

With lengthy tracking shots, it's the same concept. What makes them special is the intricate choreography, impeccable timing, complex logistics, etc. that we know to be involved in capturing so much in a single take. The actors and crew realize that if they screw up, it's time to do it all over again, often at great expense. How can I have the same admiration for a shot that “cheats” to get it right? All of the sequences I have selected for my Top 10 were truly captured in a single shot, and with one exception, they each last over two minutes.

1. Touch of Evil (1958) - 3 min, 11 sec - Watch

The perfect example of a tracking crane shot that not only baffles on a technical level, but also serves an enormous purpose within the narrative. In just over three minutes of cinematic brilliance courtesy of Orson Welles, we are introduced to the two newlywed main characters (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh), four atmospheric blocks or so of our setting (a U.S./Mexican border town), and the mystery that must be solved. In addition to putting the entire plot into motion, we have the added drama of knowing there is a bomb that could go off at any time.

2. I Am Cuba (1964) - Funeral Procession: 2 min, 30 sec - Rooftop/Pool Sequence: 3 min, 22 sec - Watch 1 Watch 2

Absolutely stunning work from director Mikhail Kalatozov and the rest of the creative team behind The Cranes Are Flying (1957), another film loaded with fine tracking shots. Though I probably prefer the visual poetry of the funeral procession, I also love the rooftop shot, so I included both. Each is a stunning artistic and technical achievement that inspired a friend of mine to ask, "Were any cameramen injured during the making of this movie?"

3. The Longest Day (1962) - 1 min, 27 sec - Watch

It may have the shortest shot length on this list, but it deserves every bit of its ranking. Among action sequences, it arguably remains the finest long tracking shot ever done. Granted, it was filmed from a helicopter, but it still registers as a tracking shot. The level of complexity here is astounding. The timing of everything from cast movements to explosives and squibs, etc. had to be perfect. It's an accomplishment of epic proportions, to say the least. Wow.

4. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) - 7 min, 51 sec - Watch

This beautiful, poignant sequence from one of Bela Tarr's finest films is more than twice as long as any shot I've listed thus far, but it's not as technically complex. This one ranks so highly because it's more than a wonderful tracking shot. It's a lyrical vision of characters going through an emotional catharsis, and it serves a strong thematic purpose within the narrative. One could argue that this scene tells a complete story by itself, almost like a short film, but in the context of the whole picture this shot takes on an even greater significance. Notice Tarr's decision to focus on the sounds of destruction in the hospital, while leaving the victims to suffer in silence.

5. Goodfellas (1990) - 3 min, 3 sec - Watch

It took eight takes to nail this; the best and most celebrated tracking shot of Martin Scorsese's career. Though it is full of energy and technical bravado, it also serves as a peek into the privileged mobster lifestyle.

6. The Player (1992) - 7 min, 47 sec - Watch

This playful, satirical opening shot introduces a number of major characters at a Hollywood studio, and much like the one in Touch of Evil, it really sets the entire story in motion. Fifteen takes were required to get this thing right, and it's clearly a masterpiece of ensemble timing in the Altman tradition.

7. Russian Ark (2002) - 91 min, 27 sec - Watch

Some people love Sokurov's film, others hate it, but we all have to give it credit for doing the seemingly impossible. It's an entire film in a single shot, and it was so well planned and thoroughly choreographed that only two takes were ruined. The third take is the film we see.

8. Atonement (2007) - 5 min - Watch

Some people have accused Joe Wright, the director, of showing off with this scene. I don't agree, but even if I did the shot might find its way onto this list. Atonement had a $30 million budget, and Wright needed about $4 million more to do the Dunkirk scene as it was written. Permission wasn't granted, so Wright improvised and this shot (the third take) was the result. A big chunk of the budget was spent that day, with all kinds of set decoration, over a thousand costumed extras, horses, etc. It's lovely, superbly choreographed, and even tragic, in its way, which was probably the point.

9. The Protector (2005) - 3 min, 46 sec - Watch

It may be the worst overall movie in the Top 10, but this Steadicam shot is absolutely spectacular. I could watch it half a dozen times in a row and still marvel at it. It took a month of rehearsal and five takes to accomplish; one can only imagine the timing and effort required here by everyone involved, particularly the stunt men and Tony Jaa. I even feel bad for the set decorators, who undoubtedly had quite a job fixing the set and replacing props after the four failed takes. This is, hands down, the greatest single shot hand-to-hand action sequence ever filmed. That's why it made the list. It's so incredible on its merits that it doesn't even matter if Tony Jaa is just beating the tar out of people to rescue his pet elephants...

10. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) - 2 min, 39 sec - Watch

A couple shots on this list begin their respective films, but this shot ends one. It's a gorgeous sequence filled with energy, joy, and jubilation as the cast members dance through a courtyard and garden. All this merrymaking culminates in a masterful crane shot that takes in the scope of the celebration.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Avengers Have Arrived

People often wonder why critics tend to beat up on the big, mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Are they just being contrary and going against popular opinion? No, they do it because these films, if we are “profiling”, tend to have the least respect for the intelligence of their audience. Film critics sit through hundreds of movies a year; they know the landscape, so to speak. They know when they are being fed over-advertised garbage by a film studio that's just out to make a buck. Woody Allen once went so far as to say, “If my films don't show a profit, I know I'm doing something right.” Why? Because like it or not, when it comes to filmmaking Hollywood has a reputation for embracing a calculated assembly line approach. “Groups A and B will like this movie, what else can we throw in there to get Group C on board?” It's a bit insulting. We are people, not cattle.

Here's the thing though, there's nothing inherently wrong with popular entertainment. It's just that far too many people don't subject these behemoths to any form of discriminating taste, so Hollywood gets a free pass whether the end result is trash or treasure. It's like making no distinction between ten different glasses of wine, you simply take a sip of all of them and say, “They're good enough.” If Battle: Los Angeles (2011) was one of those wines, I would pour it out in disgust. One taste of The Avengers, however, and I'm thinking, “Give me some more of that one!” The difference is palpable. If more Hollywood blockbusters were on the level of The Avengers, critics wouldn't have to bash so many awful ones along the way.

What makes The Avengers so special? The list is long: character, wit, imagination, epic scope, exciting choreography, you name it. I actually enjoyed most of the characters here even more than I did in their own movies. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo this time around) and Captain America (Chris Evans) were both given short shrift in their pictures, which were average at best, but here they are both quite appealing. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) certainly isn't a complex fellow, but he was more fun to watch than he was last year. We see a lot more of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), all of whom get to show what they can do after being relegated to smaller roles. Last but not least, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) can still be counted on to flaunt his extra large ego and let the wisecracks fly.

The film picks up where Thor (2011) left off, in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility where Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is trying to unlock the mysteries of the Tesseract, a potential source of unlimited power used by Red Skull and HYDRA in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The Tesseract also functions as a gateway to other realms, and it is through this gateway that Thor's brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), returns after his fall from Asgard. With his trusty new spear he can subjugate his victims, creating servants of Dr. Selvig and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Hawkeye. Nick Fury escapes with his life, while Loki makes off with the Tesseract.

Loki's motive? To be worshiped as a god, apparently, the way Asgardians used to be. He feels that humans are a greatly inferior race innately yearning to bow down and be controlled by someone powerful. When he fell from Asgard, Loki ended up in the realm of the Chitauri, a hive-minded alien race looking to possess the Tesseract. Loki makes a deal; the Tesseract in exchange for an army of Chitauri to conquer Earth.

Unaware of these details, Fury still knows that Loki and the Tesseract are a potentially devastating mix. He decides it is time to put the “Avenger Initiative” into effect. So, from various corners of the world our heroes are brought together, and all but Thor and Hawkeye meet on an advanced S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier that can fly and use “reflection panels” to turn invisible.

Loki's next step is to locate iridium, which must be used in conjunction with the Tesseract to open the huge portal that will allow the Chitauri to invade Earth. He locates the iridium in Germany, where Iron Man and Captain America intercept him. Loki is captured, and on the way back to the carrier, Thor shows up for a few choice words with his brother. This culminates in a fun forest brawl between Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.

At this point, not even halfway through the film, it would probably be wise of me to scale back on the details, and simply address what works so well in general. In a film like this, interaction between the key players is priceless, and writer/director Joss Whedon (co-writer of
The Cabin in the Woods) really nails it. I particularly enjoyed the bits between Iron Man and Captain America, two polar opposites who collide like trains. The former is accused of being a self-serving egomaniac, while the latter is as selfless and straight-laced as they come. Maybe though, just maybe, even Tony Stark will prove willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

Loki is still a solid villain, as he was in Thor, appearing all the more so as his devious plans come to light. Our heroes, though they never seem to run any genuine risk of biting the dust, at least appear to have their hands full. There are several terrific action setpieces, the best I've seen since last year's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, that should be studied by filmmakers who think good action means shaking the camera around while blowing everything up and filling the gaps with CGI.

Naysayers have compared the forty minute final battle here to what we saw in Transformers: Dark of the Moon last year. Not a chance. Transformers featured idiotic characters and writing, so by the time Chicago had become a war zone, I was about ready to slice my wrists. Besides, the battle itself was simply not engaging. There was no one worth caring about or rooting for, all I saw were a bunch of computer generated robots laying waste to the city. In The Avengers, even when the Hulk and Iron Man are purely animated constructs, we see them as characters. We like them, we want them to succeed.

Speaking of that final battle, it really should be considered a tour de force of some kind. I mean, it's not the Battle of Borodino in Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1967), but my goodness, Whedon and his editors (Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek) are due some credit for managing all the different gears of this machine. There's an awful lot going on, but it never devolves into a chaotic mess. There's computer animation everywhere, buildings getting torn apart, huge alien snakes flying around, explosions galore, and yet the film never loses sight of its heroes. They provide us a focal point, visually and emotionally, which is why this machine emits a hum instead of a hiss.

There is also an impressive tracking shot in the climactic battle as the camera flies from hero to hero kicking butt around the city without any visible cuts. It's a nice touch, indeed, though I still prefer the craftsmanship of real tracking shots like those found in Touch of Evil (1958) and Goodfellas (1990). Another fine addition is the humor peppered throughout, with Iron Man and the Hulk getting the most laughs from the audience I saw it with. The stakes are pretty high when you're talking about world domination, but it's still a comic book adventure, right? Whedon understands that lighter moments don't have to come at the expense of the heavier stuff.

Ultimately, what we have here is a grand ol' time at the movies, and a splendid example of the Hollywood blockbuster done right. A lot of directors get lazy and complacent when given a $220 million budget, but bundles of cash seem to get Joss Whedon's creative juices flowing all the more. You really see that money up on the screen, and every hero gets their chance to shine, so if you have a favorite, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

It's not high art, nor will the story win any awards, but The Avengers is better escapist entertainment than every one of the films that led up to it. I call that “living up to the hype”. However, Marvel Studios' success here should also be their gravest concern. With Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and Captain America 2 already in the making, they have to be wondering, “How do we measure up to The Avengers with these solo efforts?” Frankly, that's a damn good question.

The Avengers (2012): 8 out of 10
Battle: Los Angeles (2011): 1 out of 10
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): 2 out of 10
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011): 8 out of 10
War and Peace (1967): 9 out of 10
Touch of Evil (1958): 9 out of 10
Goodfellas (1990): 9 out of 10

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Avengers Are Coming: Part Three

THOR (2011)

Who in the world ever thought Kenneth Branagh, an actor/filmmaker best known for adapting Shakespeare, would direct a movie about a superhero from the pages of a Marvel comic? Anyone who says they predicted such a thing simply has to be lying, but here we are. Early on the picture feels particularly un-Branagh-like, with an excess of computer animation; the entire frame seems to be filled with CGI for most of the first twenty minutes. Of course, like Avatar (2009), they had to create an entirely different world from our own. Asgard is a land of rainbow bridges and golden spires, seemingly surrounded by a vast ocean and then...outer space. The “rules” of this place are never fully understood, it doesn't quite feel fleshed out or real, certainly not compared to Avatar's Pandora, but then again we aren't in Asgard much and most of the action is confined to the palace when we are.

We begin with a variation on Norse mythology, related in a story by Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the king of Asgard. The tale involves evil beings called Frost Giants from one of the nine realms known as Jotunheim, who once tried to conquer Earth. Odin's forces drove the Frost Giants back to Jotunheim and stole a glowing blue casket that served as their power source. Why do we need to know all this? Because on the day that Odin's eldest son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is to become king, the Frost Giants infiltrate the palace in Asgard to retrieve the casket. A huge “Destroyer” robot laser beams them all into oblivion, protecting the treasure room.

Thor wants to take an army to Jotunheim seeking revenge, but Odin is still king, and he disagrees. Recklessly, Thor and a small group of allies, including his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), go to Jotunheim on their own and engage in a big, over-the-top cartoon battle with the Frost Giants. The movie came very close to losing me at this point, I was simply not engaged or impressed by these silly antics. Odin comes to the rescue, however, and he's so upset that he strips Thor of his power (the hammer), and exiles him to Earth. Like a nice father, he tosses the hammer down to Earth too, just in case someone down there is more worthy of Thor's power, perhaps eventually Thor himself.

It's a good thing Thor landed in New Mexico because they happen to speak in Thor's own ancient Asgardian tongue, a language also known as English. The Frost Giants are fluent, as well. It's an easy Marvel universe to live in, indeed. If Thor had landed in Japan, I guess the movie would have just ended on a hopeless note? Anyway, in New Mexico he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist, and her teacher, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). This is where the movie hits its stride and reveals its sense of humor. The comedy is based around the fish out of water situation, Thor's goofy comments that sounded just fine back in Asgard, and the fact that he still thinks he is a powerhouse when he's not. Of the five Marvel films leading up to The Avengers, I dare say only the original Iron Man was this lighthearted and funny.

Thor realizes he will need his hammer back, but its landing place has been surrounded by S.H.I.E.L.D. No one can remove it from where it rests, much like Excalibur. Thor successfully fights his way in, but even he fails to remove the hammer. In this scene, we are introduced to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and his crazy bow and arrow, both in the service of S.H.I.E.L.D. He will play a larger role in The Avengers, but for the moment Thor gets interrogated by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, his third time in Coulson's shoes). Loki visits his brother when Coulson is out of the room, and we learn shortly that he has betrayed Thor, Odin, and all of Asgard.

Obviously Thor won't remain a prisoner, there will be more butt kicking and his power will return before he takes on Loki. We essentially know these things before we even sit down with our popcorn. Still, Thor is a pretty fun comic book adventure, and a notch better than your average origin story. It's overkill in the beginning, with all the CG “spectacle” and huge, sleep inducing battles, but while they could have been done better, those moments ultimately set the stage for what is to come. Obviously, there are plenty of things that make no logical sense, and there is never any real feeling of danger since Thor seems immortal, pretty much. At one point he is blasted through the wall of the palace in Asgard and plummets about a quarter mile. The next time we see him, he's flying across the rainbow bridge without a scratch.

Thor is also elevated a bit by the character of Loki, the best villain of the five Avengers prequels. I won't go into all the reasons why, because the guy has motives I didn't even explain in this review. Suffice it to say that he's not all bad here. His actions are terribly wrong, no doubt, but his motivations stem from an understandable inferiority complex and a burning desire to look like the better son in his father's eyes. I think it was a hell of a choice by Marvel and Joss Whedon to make Loki the lead villain in The Avengers, and I'm looking forward to how that plays out.

This picture also boasts the best post-credits sequence of the bunch. We see Dr. Selvig under Loki's control, in a S.H.I.E.L.D. building, as Nick Fury reveals an object we will later recognize (in Captain America: The First Avenger) as the Tesseract. “What is it,” Selvig asks. Fury replies, “Power doctor. If we can figure out how to tap it, maybe unlimited power.” Then Loki appears in a reflection and whispers, “Well, I guess that's worth a look.”

Thor (2011): 6 out of 10
Avatar (2009): 8 out of 10


Prior to Captain America, Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, The Wolfman, etc.) had made only one genuinely good movie called October Sky (1999). After Captain America, he has still only made one good movie.

The visuals and music here are bathed in nostalgia for “the greatest generation”, Johnston's intent was not lost on me. This romanticized, artificial looking 1940's version of New York City works at first, in the same way that a postcard does. It's nowhere near as impressive as the 1933 New York City seen in Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), but it's oddly appealing, up to a point, and shows admirable craftsmanship. Ultimately, it just starts to feel too phony, even for a comic book movie.

What does not feel phony are the effects that transformed the well built, six foot tall Chris Evans into the little shrimp, Steve Rogers. He convincingly looks about five feet tall and less than a hundred pounds, with arms like tent poles. When we first meet the guy, the military won't even enlist him to fight in World War II. Eventually, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German expat who has created a “super soldier” serum, overhears Rogers chatting with his enlisted buddy, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Erskine realizes the kid has heart, and makes him a candidate for the super soldier experiment.

Around this time Tommy Lee Jones shows up as Colonel Phillips, and his chosen candidate for the program is much more physically gifted. He and Erskine test the recruits by tossing a fake live grenade at them, from which the colonel's candidate runs for cover as Steve Rogers dives onto it to save the others. Before the procedure takes place, Erskine informs Rogers that a prototype version of the serum was given to a Nazi officer back in Germany named Johann Schmidt. At this point we have already seen Schmidt and his HYDRA soldiers break into a castle in Norway to steal an object of great power called the Tesseract. “The jewel of Odin's treasure room,” he calls it. This connects the story to Thor and beyond, as the Tesseract is said to play an important part in The Avengers.

Anyway, aided by Erskine and Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark from Iron Man), Rogers becomes a large and powerful super soldier. For a while he just dresses up as a character named “Captain America” and sells war bonds. Then he finds out his friend Bucky has been lost with his squad behind enemy lines, and decides to come to his rescue once Stark outfits him with improved armor and an impenetrable Vibranium shield (this explains how a prototype version of the shield ends up in Tony Stark's office in Iron Man). Eventually Captain America leads an assault on HYDRA and Red Skull (the true form of Johann Schmidt), who are outfitted with all new powers as a result of possessing the Tesseract.

Unfortunately, Captain America never quite comes together the way it should. It's not bad at all, it's just not good either. The new and improved Steve Rogers has a tendency to be somewhat boring compared to the other Marvel characters, and I'm not a fan of Red Skull. He may have been a great villain in the comics, but here he's a dime-a-dozen power mad dictator. The action scenes are hit-and-miss, nothing manages to stand out, and the entire exercise feels a bit stale. Still, this movie does explain how Captain America ends up in the same year as Iron Man, Hulk, and the rest of the crew. He's frozen near the end of the film and gets rediscovered in the future where he's recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

You know, I might be expecting too much, but another thing I find unfortunate about this story is that Rogers has to be voluntarily injected with an experimental serum in order to become a hero. Granted, even before Peter Parker was bitten by the genetically altered spider, which was not a choice I might add, he was more physically blessed than this kid. Rogers has a knack for strategy, leadership, and personal sacrifice though; traits that would exist without the serum. I realize it's cool to imagine this small fry growing big and strong, otherwise we wouldn't have Captain America. I get it. However, another part of me would find him more heroic if he rose above his shortcomings naturally. I liked the kid better when he was the underdog.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 5 out of 10
Jumanji (1995): 5 out of 10
Jurassic Park III (2001): 5 out of 10
The Wolfman (2010): 4 out of 10
October Sky (1999): 7 out of 10
King Kong (2005): 6 out of 10

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Avengers Are Coming: Part Two


After Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), Marvel Studios decided to do their own independent version as a better lead-in to The Avengers. In theory, Marvel and Louis Letterier (director of 2010's terrible Clash of the Titans) probably thought they were making a superior film, but The Incredible Hulk is no better than Ang Lee's effort. This one isn't really an origin story, since the “origin” is explained through images in the opening credit sequence. It's basically a chase movie, minus a great deal of the excitement a chase movie usually entails.

We meet Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hiding out in the Brazilian shanty town, Rocinha, long after he has been infected by the gamma radiation that causes him to mutate into the Hulk when his heart rate rises. Quietly working at a bottling plant, he has been trying to find a cure for his condition while managing the anger that brings out the beast. A simple accident at the plant causes a drop of Banner's blood to land in one of the bottles being shipped to the U.S., resulting in the death of the person who drinks it (cameo by Stan Lee, creator of three of the four Avengers that got their own movie). The bottle is traced back to the plant in Brazil, and General Ross (William Hurt) mobilizes a team, led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), to bring in Banner.

Obviously they fail as Banner mutates into the Hulk and annihilates them. Blonsky barely survives, then marvels at the incredible power of the creature he has seen. Ambitious to possess such strength, Blonsky allows General Ross to give him a low dosage of the “super soldier” serum the military has been working on since World War II (the same serum taken by Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt in Captain America: The First Avenger). In the meantime, Banner has made his way back to the U.S. where he reluctantly meets up with his former lover, research partner, and daughter of the general, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). The rest of the film features these two lovers on the run, with some big action setpieces worked in.

The action and special effects are actually the highlight here, as the human “story” can barely be called such. We are given just enough to enjoy the proceedings to some degree, and not an ounce more. Banner and Betty are “good people”, the General is a “cold heartless bastard”, and Blonsky is a “power hungry little mongrel”. This wonderful cast is completely underutilized, each one of them could do these roles in their sleep. I've seen worse though, much worse, and as I mentioned...the action scenes aren't half bad. The Culver University showdown is fun, involving enough military firepower (provided by Stark Industries from Iron Man) to take down a small city, though it doesn't even phase the Hulk. The final battle is also rather engaging, as it pits Abomination (a really ugly, massive, mutated powerhouse) against the Hulk in the streets of Harlem.

Ultimately, The Incredible Hulk does enough to be average, but that's about it. If it wasn't part of the build up to The Avengers, I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it to anyone. Robert Downey Jr. shows up as Tony Stark in the final scene though, explaining to General Ross that “...we are putting a team together.” In a couple more days, we will see how that team turned out.

The Incredible Hulk (2008): 5 out of 10
Hulk (2003): 5 out of 10
Clash of the Titans (2010): 2 out of 10

IRON MAN 2 (2010)

Billionaire tech genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns, at less than maximum potential, in Jon Favreau's blockbuster sequel to Iron Man. Stark is actually dying this time around, ironically caused by palladium in the very core that keeps him alive. This accounts for Stark's antagonistic nature here. At times he's still the witty playboy, but the chip on his shoulder makes him less appealing somehow. To make matters worse, his superhero identity is worldwide news, and the Russian physicist, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), happens to want him punished for the past deeds of his deceased father, Howard Stark.

One of Tony's top competitors, Justin Hammer (a fitting name given the way Sam Rockwell hams it up), enters the fray as Ivan's secret financial backer, while Tony gets a little help from S.H.I.E.L.D. in the form of Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). We see a lot more of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) this time around as well, including a scene where he sheds a little more light on the "Avenger Initiative”. Don Cheadle takes over as James Rhodes (formerly played by Terrence Howard), and Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts.

Iron Man 2 is a slick, well made production like all these other Marvel pics, but it's a step down from the original. Tony doesn't enjoy a character arc comparable to the one in Iron Man, the villains are not particularly special, and the final showdown with Vanko seems to end in the same minute that it begins. The film just isn't as tightly constructed as the first, though there are some great moments, especially the Japanese Garden battle pitting Stark and Rhodes against a bunch of heavily armed Hammer Drones.

For fans of The Avengers there are a lot of other fun bits here, including another sighting of Captain America's shield in Tony's workshop, and news footage following one of the Incredible Hulk's attacks. The post-credits sequence even shows Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) arriving in New Mexico at the very spot where Thor's hammer landed after he was exiled from Asgard. Iron Man 2 is a good time, indeed, just not as good as the first movie.

Iron Man 2: 6 out of 10