The Avengers

May 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by: Joss Whedon (“Serenity”)
Written by: Joss Whedon (“The Cabin in the Woods”)

It happens in the second half of the highly-anticipated Marvel comic-book movie “The Avengers,” a precisely planned superhero assemblage that has been culminating since 2008’s release of both “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” reboot (most über-nerds unfairly ignore director Ang Lee’s fascinating “Hulk” of 2003 as art-house nonsense). As “The Avengers” ensemble cast, including Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, contemplate how to stop the supervillain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from destroying the earth with his barrage of alien soldiers and machines, Captain America (Chris Evans) takes it upon himself to assign his comrades to do what each one of them does best.

“Hulk … smash,” he says, directing his bulging, green, gamma ray-infused super teammate who swiftly carries out his instructions by ripping apart serpent-like battleships running amok in NYC. It’s a phrase fanboys will be pleased to hear, especially since Marvel seemed to agree with their assessment of Lee’s aforementioned attempt, which prompted the studio to hit the reset button by plugging Edward Norton into Eric Bana’s transforming role as Bruce Banner (the role now belongs to Mark Ruffalo after creative differences arose between Marvel and Norton). From that point on, the comic-book conglomerate knew exactly what they needed their Universe to become.

“The Avengers” isn’t trying to reinvent the comic-book movie like Lee or Christopher Nolan with his “Dark Knight” trilogy. It’s evident that the studio’s main objective is mass commercial appeal and not to clutter things up with complex ideas and themes. That’s exactly what they’ve been doing over the last four years. With releases like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” they wanted to give fans already invested in these characters concrete evidence no one was going to wax philosophical. They wanted big, blaring scenes capable of melting eyeballs in 3D. In the simplest of terms, they wanted to see Hulk, well, smash.

And smash he does in “The Avengers” alongside the mightiest of heroes, which first appeared together in comic books written by industry savant Stan Lee in the early ’60s. Back then, the squad was created to compete with the ever-growing popularity of DC Comics’ Justice League. While the roster has changed over the years, the modern film adaptations have chosen to follow the characters best able to sidestep their natural comic-book kitsch (sorry Ant-Man, your protruding shoulder pads are just too silly to overcome). With approximately $1.8 billion in box-office revenue worldwide, geekdom has spoken. Despite its flaws, “The Avengers” is solid entertainment.

What better way to appease the geeks than with one of their own? Directed by cult favorite Joss Whedon (TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”), “The Avengers” is pumped with exciting action sequences and razor-sharp special effects that can compete with anything Marvel has ever put out. Known for his clever writing ability (screw Buffy, the dude wrote Darlene’s “To Whom it Concerns” poem during a Season 2 episode of “Roseanne!”), Whedon’s dialogue is perfect for more charismatic characters like industrialist playboy Tony Stark — though far less so for characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the always doltish Thor, who unfortunately doesn’t provide much oomph to the already ordinary storyline. It starts with Thor’s evil brother Loki, a flimsily written antagonist who is able to get his hands on a powerful cube known as the Tesseract, which holds the key to unlimited sustainable energy. With the planet on the brink of destruction, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rallies his all-star team together to (trumpet fanfare) save the human race. Before they can do that, however, the Avengers must experience some growing pains as a diverse superhero unit and quibble like kids on the playground. It’s during these fight scenes that fanboy fantasies come true. Watching Thor’s hammer slam down onto Captain America’s shield is the stuff of epic wonder. Other amazing feats of action bliss include the Hulk intercepting a fighter pilot as he ejects from a damaged jet, and Stark changing into his Iron Man suit in midair.

While the narrative itself leaves much to be desired, Whedon, who also has the overrated meta horror movie “The Cabin in the Woods” out at theaters, does have a knack for hilarious pop-culture references, snappy one-liners that get every character involved, and some physical comedy. It all keeps the story from falling into too many past superhero pitfalls. “The Avengers” may not divert much from the typical superhero blueprint, but what hardcore Marvel enthusiast would really want that anyway?

Iron Man 2

May 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”)
Written by: Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”)

If personality makes up the majority of a superhero’s likability, Iron Man should be considered the Marvel comic book character you’d love to hate.

That’s not to say two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Robert Downey Jr. has lost all the charisma that made the 2008 original blockbuster film so downright entertaining and original. Even when Downey Jr. isn’t donning the maroon and gold mechanical suit that transforms him into a weapon of mass destruction, he has another captivating persona he can fall back on.

Meet Tony Stark. While you might know him from the first “Iron Man,” the sequel, aptly called “Iron Man 2,” allows us to meet the man inside the machine on a more personal level. In the film, Tony seems to be running on fumes. As Iron Man, he can still hold his own against anyone that comes his way, but as a mortal, the genius billionaire industrialist has a serious problem.

The power source embedded in his chest, which is keeping him alive, is also slowly poisoning him. Along with his health issues, Tony is butting heads with the U.S. Senate, who wants him to turn over his Iron Man machinery. The Senate says his invention is a threat to national security especially if a country decides to copy the technology and use it against the U.S.

Tony refuses to relinquish his work stating that it would take years for someone to duplicate what he has done. He is oblivious to the fact that Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has already engineered his own version of the suit and fastened it to himself to transform into the electromagnetic super villain known as Whiplash. When he teams up with Tony’s major weapons competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), the two set out to develop an army of drones that would take the arms race by storm.

Replacing Terrance Howard from the original, Don Cheadle plays Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who later attempts to put a stop to Tony’s destructive ways caused by his alcohol problem. Although he manages to spiral downward fairly quickly, love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) doesn’t give up on him that easy. Neither does S.H.I.E.L.D. front man Nick Fury (Samuel L.  Jackson) who makes sure Tony’s talents aren’t wasted. His stubbornness to join the secret agency known as the Avengers will be short-lived since all these Marvel movies are linking together for one giant superhero reunion in the next few years.

No matter what is being planned for the future, “Iron Man 2” is able to stand on its own. It works well with enough action sequences, fight scenes and some interesting characters, none of which match the humor and charm of Downey Jr. who again makes the movie his own personal and egotistical show.

He’s Just Not That Into You

February 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Justin Long, Jennifer Aniston
Directed by: Ken Kwapis (“License to Wed”)
Written by: Abbie Kohn (“Never Been Kissed”) and Marc Silverstein (“Never Been Kissed”)

Just when you thought women couldn’t be portrayed more desperate and neurotic than Sarah Jessica Parker at the end of “Sex and the City: The Movie” (if you think Carrie Bradshaw taking back Mr. Big was romantic, then I really don’t understand the opposite sex), meet the ladies of “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

While Bradshaw showed at least some signs of independence in “SATC” (she is a single woman living in New York City after all), the unapologetically weak women of “HJNTIY,” led by the likeable Ginnifer Goodwin (“Walk the Line”), are so unbelievably hopeless, you can’t help to not feel one ounce of sympathy for any of them who might end up alone for the rest of their lives.

The relationship troubles in this cliché romantic comedy start with Gigi (Goodwin), a twenty-something young woman from Baltimore who is searching for Mr. Right and always coming up short. Along with running into relationship dead-ends, Gigi, like Charlotte York from “SATC,” is a hopeless romantic and doesn’t quite grasp the idea of a man blowing her off after an amicable date.

There to soften the fall after her last taste of rejection is Alex (Justin Long), a bar manager who plays the all-knowing love guru and attempts to explain the rules of dating to a wide-eyed and heartbroken Gigi. She, of course, isn’t the only one with relationship woes in “HJNTIY.” Spread thinly across a forgettable script penned by “Never Been Kissed” screenwriters Abbie Kohn and March Silverstein, other characters include Beth (Jennifer Aniston), whose long-time boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck) doesn’t believe in marriage; Ben (Bradley Cooper), who’s in a sexless marriage with Janine (Jennifer Connelly) and gets involved with aspiring singer Anna (Scarlett Johansson); and Mary (Drew Barrymore) who complains about how technology is ruining her love life.

Between these stories, director Ken Kwapis (“License to Wed”) decides to add filler with mock testimonials from men and women about their personal experiences in the dating scene. While it worked in a film like “When Harry Met Sally,” in “HJNTIY” it’s phony and unimaginative.

“HJNTIY” feels like a therapy session with friends you haven’t talked to in a long time. They mean well when they give you advice, but what do they know about what you’ve been going through in the last few years? Who needs advice anyway, when you’ve got Justin Long teaching the dos and don’ts of dating anyway? Lesson No. 1: girls are clingy, psychotic, mentally unbalanced morons whose happiness is determined by the men they are dating. It may not be a great morale for those who chose to soak it up like scripture, but, hey, at least its got a cute cast, right?

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

August 27, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Woody Allen (“Match Point”)
Written by: Woody Allen (“Scoop”)

Calling a Woody Allen film the best film of this summer (excluding animated trash-compacting robots, of course) might rub some comic book fans the wrong way, but with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the New York City-born auteur has returned to form and does it out of his East-Coast element.

The setting might not be in Manhattan like many of Allen’s films, but in Spain, the three-time Oscar winner has found a fanciful way to display his unique take on the difference between passion and love in both relationships and fine art.

In the film, Oscar winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter who makes an indecent proposal to two American tourists vacationing Barcelona for the summer. When Juan Antonio audaciously walks up to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and asks them to spend a weekend with him, the duo is bemused by his debonair style and disregard for possible rejection.

Vicky is engaged to be married and has no interest in Juan Antonio but joins him anyway, while Cristina, who had noticed the smooth talker earlier at an art gallery, is easily persuaded to take up the offer. Although it is a lovely weekend for the trio, the scheduled sexual escapades are altered when Cristina becomes ill and Vicky is left to fend off Juan Antonio’s charm.

The complexities of these characters are revealed even more when Allen pulls an ace from his sleeve in the second half of the film when he introduces us to Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who’s fierce attitude and semi-psychotic behavior has been the downfall between her and her heart’s conquistador.

It’s Cruz’s intense performance that is the show-stopper in “Barcelona.” In her best role since earning an Oscar nomination for Pedro Almodovar’s 2006 film “Volver,” Cruz owns the screen as a woman scorned, not only by a love lost but also by life itself. When her and Bardem share scenes, the raw emotion and brutally honesty of the film climaxes. Whether the ex-lovers are fighting in the streets of Barcelona or when Juan Antonio is pleading with Maria Elena to speak English when she is talking in front of Cristina, Allen’s definitely got a handle on searing verbal conflict.

Cruz deserves another Oscar nomination this year in the Best Supporting category. Along with her performance, director Allen’s trek across the Atlantic is inspiring despite missing the boat on his last two voyages with “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Scoop.” But in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Allen writes a foursome of characters that epitomize what the word “desire” means. It truly is a sexually-engaging (and not just because of the buzzed ménage a trois scene between Bardem, Cruz, and Johansson) and fascinating cinematic travelogue of neurotic narrative.

The Other Boleyn Girl

February 27, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Eric Bana, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by: Justin Chadwick (“Sleeping with the Fishes”)
Written by: Peter Morgan (“The Queen”)

Based on the novel by Phillipa Gregory, “The Other Boleyn Girl” gets all glamed up with nowhere to go for the same reasons as 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” All the literary pieces seem to be there in some fashion, but cinematically they evolve into a film less historically savvy and more melodramatic and unreal.

It is the early 16th century and King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) is growing weary of having to wait for his queen, Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), to give birth to his heir to the throne. When her last pregnancy ends with a stillborn, the king ventures out to find a mistress to provide to him with a son.

He meets Anne Boleyn (Portman), a pretty daughter of the Boleyn family who is loosely connected to the royal court. Knowing this, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), who is brother of Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (Kristin Scott Thomas), sees an opportunity for the family to take advantage of the power that would be bestowed upon them if King Henry were to choose Anne as his lover. “Would you accept the challenge?” the king asks Anne, as if she was about to enter some sort of sexual gauntlet.

Henry’s attention, however, is diverted to Mary (Johansson), the other Boleyn girl, who quickly strikes his fancy without doing much. But could a man actually come between Mary and Anne as it does in this instance? In the opening sequence, screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) attempts to set up the idea that these two sisters are very close to one another. This thought is forgotten once both women flex their claws and do everything they can to seduce the king, who spends all of his time worrying about who he’s going to bed and no time actually doing anything a king would do.

Who believes Bana as the king anyway? He is a sore thumb and terribly miscast and Johansson, this generation’s most overrated actress, swoons enough for author Gregory’s next five novels. When she doesn’t, she situates herself behind simple dialogue and brilliant set design to blend into her surroundings. Only Portman, at least in the final act, is able to escape some of the formulaic scenes to prove there is actually blood pumping through one of the character in habiting the castle.

Still, there is direction missing in “Boleyn Girl,” which might not be so apparent if Morgan hadn’t written the script right after going on a Danielle Steele book-reading marathon. Where there should be passion there’s tacky love affairs. Where there should be strength from the crown, there’s a schoolboy crushing. Make no mistake about it, “The Other Boleyn Girl” will be an easy period piece to forget once the credits (and heads) roll.

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