Archive for May, 2012

The Woman in Black (2012)

Starring- Daniel Radcliffe, Misha Handley, Jessica Raine, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Tim McMullan, Cathy Sara

Director- James Watkins

PG-13- thematic material and violence/disturbing images

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lReemWmO5o

I’ve often said that the test of a great horror film is not how scary it is while you’re watching it—it’s how scary it is when you’re lying down in bed that night.

It’s on that level that I think “The Woman in Black” fails, in how quickly every last trace of it evaporates from the memory once it’s over. Given that, how could it possibly get under your skin and actually scare you?

It is not, mind you, a bad film from most of the more technical angles from which I can examine it. It’s not insulting, and there’s much to like in it. But at the end of the day, it is a horror movie and must be reviewed as such. And on the level of actually delivering on its promise to scare you, it is a letdown.

Based on a novel I haven’t read (that was adapted into a play that, upon research, actually sounds quite interesting), “The Woman in Black” follows Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young solicitor walking a tightrope on the edge of losing his job when he is assigned to handle an estate—the Eel Marsh House.

Upon arrival, Arthur finds the local townspeople anxious, unsettled, and strangely suspicious of him, seeming as though they are trying to ward him off from the house and usher him out as quickly as possible. He befriends a wealthy landowner, Samuel Daily (Ciaran Hinds), who is tight-lipped about the whole thing. But Arthur is undeterred.

He goes to the Eel Marsh House, and there, he finds much more than merely an empty estate.

For, you see, it is not empty at all…

“The Woman in Black,” overall, constructs a largely decent film around the central horror premise, but it fails to deliver on the actual scares. In other words: a nice packaging wrapped around an empty box.

While suitably atmospheric—and it does put forth the occasional haunting image here and there—it never sinks in the way it should. Primarily, it goes the route of most standard horror fare and confuses jump scares with actual chills. The film is tense and unsettling; you will believe you’re scared while you’re watching it. But what you’re really doing is merely anticipating the jump. You’re afraid of being startled, not afraid of being, well, afraid.

When the film is examined closely, it simply does not get under the skin. It creates too many safe zones, too many escape hatches, too many places the hero can go where there won’t be any dangers. There are few surprises; in fact, the scares are largely predictable. Does the camera leave an unusual amount of space between the character’s head and the edge of the frame? Congratulations—something is going to happen in that space.

It isn’t particularly claustrophobic. It doesn’t really play into any particularly primal human fears. It’s a bit tense, but that’s about all. On top of that, it really does play its hand a bit too early. The first time that Arthur stays in the house at night feels like a climactic event, and I do need to give the film some credit here—this scene is freaking scary. It does have an overreliance on the obnoxious jumps, true, but it also has a number of genuinely haunting moments—the vast majority of them quiet ones. It is hard not to bite your nails during the scene where the Woman in Black stalks the sleeping Arthur at his desk. It also seemingly goes on forever, taking at least fifteen minutes of time in the movie. It feels like a lot longer, and you desperately want it to end.

The movie never really tops that scene, nor does it particularly try. This leaves it feeling awkwardly paced, in addition to allowing the one truly frightening thing about its premise to fade from the memory too quickly.

However, I will confess an affinity for period horror, and “The Woman in Black” is a relatively compelling one. This is for two reasons—firstly, its characters are not required either to be dumb college kids or perpetually drunk/stoned; and secondly, it is able to craft a lot of great imagery around some of the creepy old houses and towns. The Eel Marsh House genuinely is a marvel of craftsmanship, a haunted house that so effectively exudes darkness that one wonders how even the most un-superstitious person could be bothered to set foot inside.

I have another affinity as well, for horror that is driven by chills and suspense rather than splattering good-looking people’s brains all over the wall every fifteen minutes or so. Thus, it pleases me that “The Woman in Black” is over the former type. It’s a shame that it’s not so good at the chills part of that equation, but it nevertheless possesses a more intensive than usual focus on the story and the characters. The story itself is simple, but it moves things along well and makes decent enough use of old-timey horror conventions. It’s the kind of scary story you would tell around a campfire—simple, but well wrought.

As to the characters… Well, Daniel Radcliffe does what, as far as I can tell, he’s best at—being a mostly flat reference point for the audience to project onto. He does portray a subtler range of emotions here, indicating that he perhaps has some hidden depths yet. More interesting is Hinds’ character, Mr. Daily, who is well done to the point that he quite overshadows the protagonist. He’s a man who exists in the middle of terrifying supernatural goings-on but adamantly refuses to believe in them. You can feel his grip on that reality slipping as the film marches on. Had the film been told from his perspective, it might have had some interesting things to say about doubt and human spirituality. Either way, the time he’s not on-screen is generally time spent wishing he was—that was the case with me, anyway.

It’s hard to pass a final judgment on “The Woman in Black.” A lot of it works, but unfortunately, what doesn’t is its most important element. It is simply not particularly scary. Oh, it delivers chills in small doses, but they fade and are soon forgotten. It is probably decent enough, albeit flawed, as a film in the generic sense, and isn’t likely to offend. But as a horror film, it is probably a bit below average. It may have a period setting, but its techniques at generating scares are decidedly modern—jumps, loud noises, surprises, and very little in the way of genuine fear.

-Matt T.

Take Shelter (2011)

Starring- Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Wigham, Katy Mixon, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Knisley

Director- Jeff Nichols

R- some language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5U4TtYpKIc

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

The opening sentence of this review is weird, considering that I consider 2011 to have fielded one of the weakest Best Picture slates in recent memory. I guess I just wasn’t seeing enough movies yet. Otherwise, I’m pretty okay with this review, and “Take Shelter” remains, for me, the reigning king of slow burn indie thrillers. It’s amazing.

And here I thought I was going to go a full year without picking any fights with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Almost did, too—it was only by means of a short gap in my Netflix queue that I even ended up seeing this. I’ve never been so thankful for such a gap.

I’d call “Take Shelter” the best movie not to get nominated for a single Academy Award this year, but that’d be doing it some kind of disservice. It would imply that it doesn’t merit consideration within the same category as the actual nominees. So, I’m going to phrase this the best way I know how—in my opinion, “Take Shelter” is a better film than literally everything that received a Best Picture nod in 2011. By means of a short list, I am convinced it deserved nominations in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay. That’s at a minimum.

It centers on Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a small-town family man and construction worker who lives a peaceful and relatively uncomplicated life, alongside his gentle, empathetic wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain) and his daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). She is deaf, but the family doctors hold hope that a surgical procedure could restore her hearing.

However, Curtis begins having powerful, apocalyptic nightmares, centering around the recurring image of a devastating storm with tornadoes and black, oily rain that turns his neighbors mad and violent.

As they become more and more vivid, Curtis becomes convinced that they are visions of an actual apocalypse to come. Compelled by forces he doesn’t understand, he sinks the whole of his family’s resources into expanding and shoring up their old storm shelter, even as his wife and child slip through his fingers.

Having missed his Oscar-nominated turn in 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” this was my first introduction to Michael Shannon—and, clearly, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Between Shannon’s performance and Jeff Nichols’ script, “Take Shelter” crafts one of the most compelling film protagonists in recent memory. This is not just a man fighting forces from without, mired in supernatural goings-on that seem ultimately second nature to him. This is a man confronting the very real possibility that he is going insane—his mother having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at roughly the same age as him.

He is a real American man, with all therein implied. It is interesting that in the midst of all the intrigue, “Take Shelter” finds time to comment on the nature of cultural masculinity, but somehow, it manages. Curtis doesn’t buy into the notion that a man can be weak or can be openly emotional. He is closed off, denying help from those closest to him. He keeps them out of the loop, having a carefully crafted lie for every question probing his well-being. Even when his attempts to thwart his nightmares nearly end in a seizure, he refuses aid from the medical professionals on the scene.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t as thematically attuned to this film as I have perhaps been to others, but I have encountered interesting perspectives on this particular undercurrent in other reviews. The strongest of them, in my opinion, emphasize that Curtis’s visions are not necessarily directed toward averting an apocalyptic storm but rather toward making him a partner in his family rather than its stoic leader. It takes a similar tack with Sam—naturally, she believes that he is perhaps losing his mind, though she rarely lets on. Her support of her husband is revealed in full once his outburst finally comes, once he can’t take it anymore. She realizes how perfectly real it is to him, and what a torment it is to bear.

The relationship between these two is definitely the film’s foundation—its realism, uncanny observation, and, ultimately, love. That Jessica Chastain appeared in this and “The Tree of Life” and somehow garnered awards consideration for “The Help” is beyond me.

The script is strong throughout, providing the actors with a wealth of material with which to work. Its naturalism and grounded feel lend that much more power when the supernatural elements set in. Curtis’s nightmares, when we see them (and even, occasionally, when we don’t) are genuinely terrifying, and in the best way—they don’t often fall back on jump scares and other easy tricks. They are slow, haunting, and tense. The entire film has an anxious atmosphere that builds throughout; the best way I can describe it is to say that it’s like “Signs” without the gaping plot holes. It feels like early Shyamalan.

Watching it is like reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in that the audience kind of goes insane along with the protagonist. It is constantly intriguing, only in the end letting on whether or Curtis is crazy or a prophet. In fact, this is perhaps its most interesting line of questioning, at least to me personally. To be honest, I think that any religious interpretation of this film would be one unintended by the filmmakers; nevertheless, the question exists. Is Curtis insane or blessed with superhuman knowledge? How would one tell the difference? I suspect many religious faithful page through their respective holy books, read the old stories of the prophets, and think to themselves, “I’d have been one of the faithful few.” And yet, there are many today prophesying in the same way, claiming to hold the same knowledge. How can one know the difference? You wouldn’t believe Curtis, but when he digs his storm shelter, in what sense is that different from Noah building his ark?

It is truly astonishing to me that I can think of so little to criticize about this film. It has strong writing and strong acting, working in tandem to create an incredibly compelling cast of characters. It is sometimes scary and nearly always tense. And yet, it finds time to be consistently thoughtful. The score is not particularly varied, but it is haunting and works beautifully as a supplement to the film. And the cinematography warrants far more discussion than has been granted it; from beginning to end, “Take Shelter” is packed with memorable, awe-inspiring, and breath-taking images.

The ending alone remains contentious, both for me and, it would seem, for many others as well. It has been widely debated, and I have very little to contribute to that conversation. Many people have read a nihilistic interpretation into it, and I’m afraid I see the reason in that argument. Others, too, have made arguments that, while ambiguous and bittersweet, there is hope in it, centered around the film’s theme of so-called masculinity. This, too, is reasonable. Personally, I think it may be a bit of both, and to be honest, I may lean more towards the nihilistic interpretation–which, of course, does not make it the correct one. In either sense, the ending is powerful.

Honestly, I cannot understate how good this film is, and what a massive shame it is that it will go unseen by so many. I’m not certain if it’s a surprisingly effective psychological thriller disguised as an art movie or an art movie disguised as a surprisingly effective psychological thriller, it so successfully marries the two genres. It’s an independent film that feels big budget but still manages not to lose its introspection. It’s a quiet, realistic, and well-observed family drama punctuated by moments of terror and awe. The year has seen very little like it. It is, at the very least, a surefire contender for the best film of 2011.

-Matt T.

The Iron Lady (2011)

Starring- Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd

Director- Phyllida Lloyd

PG-13- some violent images and brief nudity

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlBr-3aDTHg

MODERN COMMENTARY, OCTOBER 2015:

Man, I love back when I still tried to write all flowery. These days, I’ve accepted that I’m not a poet. Yes, kids, there was indeed a year where Matt wrote positive reviews of both “The Iron Lady” and “J. Edgar” — and then compared them to one another favorably! And since he never saw either movie again, he can’t in good conscience retract said reviews! Anyway, I swore I wouldn’t do this, but I actually deleted a few sentences from this review. Those sentences contained basically the most ignorant political statement I’ve ever made on this website, and…yeah, I didn’t want them anywhere people could ever see them. I’ll be honest — my knowledge of Margaret Thatcher hasn’t improved much since seeing this. I’ve got a decent handle on U.S. politics, but I remain fuzzy on anything overseas. I suspect your opinion on her is going to profoundly influence your feelings toward the film. For all of these reasons and more…I have absolutely no idea what I think of this review.

“The Iron Lady” could not be a more apt title—for the woman herself, at the very least. Here, we see a woman who is willful, stubborn, firm, and resolute. She believes in herself and in her cause and will fight for it, no matter what it costs her. In a lot of ways, she is the perfect antidote to politicians as we’ve come to understand them.

And perhaps, in the end, it’s all to a fault.

Is it possible for strength to become a weakness, if it makes you completely impenetrable? “The Iron Lady” could beg such a conclusion.

(It’s also an interesting case study in Academy Awards functionality, as apparently, Stephen Daldry + 9/11 = Best Picture, but Meryl Streep + Margaret Thatcher apparently does not. “The Iron Lady” is the superior of the two films, in my opinion, but perhaps not by an overly persuasive margin.)

(Also, full disclosure of bias, or, in this case, the total lack thereof—my knowledge of Margaret Thatcher prior to viewing this film was as follows: she was the first female prime minister of Great Britain. And… Yup, that’s it.)

The film follows Thatcher, portrayed wonderfully by Meryl Streep (and Alexandra Roach as a young woman), in her advanced old age, suffering from what appears to be the onset of dementia. (I’m told that whether or not she actually suffers from this is purely speculative, which is worth mentioning.)

Her husband, Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent and Harry Lloyd), has recently passed away. Her remaining family is attempting to help her rid herself of his things, but she is hesitant. She still hallucinates that Denis is with her and may in fact not know he is dead at all.

As her health and dementia worsen, she begins to look back on her life and wonder—did she truly succeed? Did she make the difference she set out to make?

The film has marketed itself mainly as a feminist success story; it is not that at all. I won’t deny that the issue is touched upon. Thatcher enters into and comes to control a male-dominated world, and there are times it’s clear her sex is considered a disadvantage in the eyes of her colleagues. But the film doesn’t dwell overmuch upon it; in fact, its handling of the sexism theme is perfunctory at best, a standard “I am woman, hear me roar” setup. Little is done with it. It seems far more interested in Thatcher as an individual—and well it should be.

Compare this to “J. Edgar,” a film that I’m finding to be more and more similar the longer I think on it. “The Iron Lady” definitely has a more positive view of Thatcher’s intentions. Never is she anything less than honest; in fact, a defining characteristic of hers in the film is that she almost always speaks exactly what is on her mind. That she wants to do the best she can and that she will not be discouraged or defeated in that effort is clear. Her background is less tragic than J. Edgar Hoover’s, her life less difficult. She may be trying to prove herself to some extent, but it is clearly not her sole or even most prominent motive.

Where the film possibly attempts to interpret her is this—does this certainty, this resolute nature, this iron will, this unshakeable fervor, in the end cause her to go too far, to overstep her bounds?

The most interesting question the film raised in my mind was this: when it comes to moral fiber, can there be too much of a good thing? Strength is admirable, resolve perhaps more so, especially in politics. We should all seek to do what is right and not allow ourselves to be bullied into submission.

This is where Thatcher endears herself to us. Whether you agree or disagree with her politics, she clearly endeavors to do the right thing. She suffers greatly for it, but she does not allow such hardship to stop her. In a lot of ways, she is something to which many of our modern politicians—bending over backwards and shifting every which way for a meager vote—should consider aspiring. She genuinely believes that what she is doing is right.

The problem may lie therein.

As I was watching the film, I eventually observed the possibility that Thatcher, as portrayed here, has become so strong and self-assured as to be completely impenetrable. She is not a woman with an overabundance of tolerance for those who disagree with her. She seems a poor listener, especially where they are concerned. Her worldview has little account for the differing circumstances of human beings, in many cases reducing her political philosophy to mere platitudes and simple fights of good vs. evil.

She tells her doctor that modern generations are too focused on feelings and not enough on thoughts—and yet, are not both of these things part of what makes us fundamentally human? Thoughts stripped of emotion lack compassion and can lead to evil and even, ironically, ignorant acts. But emotions stripped of thoughts can sink a society.

At one point, she tells her daughter that everyone else is “reckless or inept.” To her, it seems like a simple statement of fact. She doesn’t see the potential arrogance in it.

She is a clear control freak, both in family affairs and in government. Her story becomes tragic in old age, when she becomes entirely reliant upon others. The last movie I expected “The Iron Lady” to mirror was “The Social Network,” but oddly enough… It does. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Margaret Thatcher, to some extent, drive away everyone closest to them, Mark through his self-absorption and need to be cool and Thatcher through her controlling, steel-walled nature. Denis Thatcher starts out supportive, but clearly realizes he is in over his head once she sets her sights on the leadership of the party. In old age, her children seem only to have a limited interest in her; when they are small, we see almost no interactions between them and their mother whatsoever. It’s as if they don’t exist.

When Thatcher finally comes to and accepts her husband’s death, his apparition departs, and she immediately second-guesses her desire to be rid of him. She shouts after him that she can’t live alone. His response: “You’ll be all right. You always have been.”

It’s left ambiguous what, exactly, he means by that—if she’s always been all right, or if she’s always been alone. But Broadbent’s delivery of the line left me immediately to conclude that he intended the latter. And it’s true. She has never needed anyone and has never particularly allowed anyone to need her. Now that she does, there are few people left.

And it’s far more tragic, because you feel as though she doesn’t deserve that. The mistakes of the protagonists in “J. Edgar” and “The Social Network” were made either knowingly or came out of ill intentions. Thatcher… You get the impression she doesn’t understand the effect she has until it’s too late.

This is just one interpretation, of course—my own. Different people will come away with different ideas as to the film’s intentions. Conservatives are likely to watch it and see an unshakeable hero whose life was eventually, sadly overcome by sickness, old age, and tragedy, as happens to us all. Liberals are likely to see a close-minded, arrogant woman who drove the nation nearly to disaster through thick-headedness and unchecked ambition. That the film toes the line that closely is perhaps not to its benefit. It seems afraid to be too controversial. It doesn’t want to offend those who love Thatcher, just as much as it wants to open the door for her critics. It’s a little too inoffensive to make a permanent impression, though it does a nice job of humanizing its central figure.

It’s a shame, then, especially given its focus on the trials of Thatcher’s personal relationships, that she’s about the only one. Not even Denis gets a lot of development as a personality or an individual. Wry humor is established as his trait; desire for his wife to invest herself in her family is his motive. Beyond that, there is very little. Almost no time is spent with the children—even as adults, when it would be crucial to learn what it was like having so public a figure for a mother. At one point, an employee of Thatcher’s proffers his resignation in what is clearly supposed to be a poignant moment, but I realized something: I don’t know his name. I don’t know his character. I don’t know what he does or how he’s important to Thatcher. There’s a problem there.

It’s also taken some heat for being a brief and somewhat trite vignette of Thatcher’s major accomplishments, and I’m not going to say those criticisms are totally inaccurate. However, I actually think the flashbacks are a nice framing device for this particular story, especially given that the film still spends the vast majority of its time in the present day with the aging, dementia-stricken Margaret Thatcher.

It’s not necessarily a brilliant film. It wasn’t cheated out of any Oscars. But, like “J. Edgar,” think it has some very interesting political implications for the modern era. History moves in cycles; that much is clear. There’s a lot we can learn from films like these. In “J. Edgar,” it was the conflict between liberty and security. In “The Iron Lady,” it’s the nature of healthy political discourse—and the relationships that surround it.

Well, if that’s how you interpret it, anyway.

-Matt T.

Happy Feet Two (2011)

Starring- Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Pink, Ava Acres, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Hugo Weaving, Common, Hank Azaria, Benjamin Flores Jr., Sofia Vergara

Director- George Miller

PG- some rude humor and mild peril

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKWNUyTGqss

“Padding: The Motion Picture,” or, as it is known in some circles, “Happy Feet Two,” is a cynical cash grab targeted at parents unfortunate enough to have children who enjoyed the first one.

I am sorry to be the bearer of unfortunate truth. The sound of this sequel’s not-giving-a-crap is freaking deafening. Not even the trailer does much of anything to place the movie into some kind of plot-related context. Instead, it says, “Yes, this is pretty much the exact same movie as the first one. But hey, your kids won’t care, so we really don’t either. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go restock my toilet paper rolls with hundred dollar bills.”

I mean, it’s essentially harmless, and I’ve seen far worse movies in this year alone—far more painful ones, too. But none of them really tried less either.

What’s the story, you ask? Please: stories. “Padding: The Motion Picture” has exactly one consistent thread: Mumble (Elijah Wood), who still has his baby fur for heaven only knows what reason, and Gloria(Pink…seriously), who really doesn’t do anything at all, from the first movie have a son, named… Crap.

*runs to IMDB*

   Let’s see, let’s see, um… Erik, really? Erik the Penguin? Oh, whatever.

   *runs back*

His name is…Erik (Ava Acres). And that’s about the only consistent thread. The penguins are still singing pop songs as a mating ritual, which is not a premise I am ever going to be able to respect. There was never a void in my life that needed to be filled with baby penguins singing “SexyBack.” I mean, I’m sure that’s some kind of fetish, but do we need to be acknowledging it, Hollywood?

Tangents are fun.

Anyway, Mumble dances, obviously, because he can’t sing, and the first movie already dealt with that. Erik never tries to sing at all but still decides to have an identity crisis over the fact that he can’t dance.

After embarrassing himself in the attempt, he runs away with two of his friends—and let’s face it, you won’t remember their names either. But then, the movie’s like, “Oh, wait, we totally did this storyline already.” So then, it tries to be about Erik meeting a penguin who can fly, Sven (Hank Azaria), but then it realizes, “Um, we can’t really go anywhere with this, and also it is completely clear to the audience right now that that is a puffin.”

So, then, Erik decides that he wants to learn to fly, but the writers are like, “Dude, character development takes, like, work.” So, instead, the penguin…colony, flock—seriously, what? Anyway, a stray iceberg gets them trapped in a pit with Mumble and Erik outside. So, they have to figure out a way to get them out before they starve to death.

The entire rest of the movie is pretty much just harebrained schemes designed to get hundreds of penguins out of a hole. That they never try a penguin ladder is a great disappointment to me. Also, by “harebrained schemes,” I actually mean “different phases of the exact same plan,” and by “different phases of the exact same plan,” I mean, “MOAR PENGUINS! AND DANCING!”

Inevitably, it’s solved by the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP. And Erik discovers that he can sing through no effort of his own (rather transparently accomplished by recording a bass opera singer and Chipmunking him). Remember kids, follow your dream, as long as it’s dancing or singing. Seriously, where’s the story of the ice sculpture penguin?

Also, there are krill, Bill (Matt Damon) and Will (Brad Pitt). They have nothing to do with the plot.

Story? Characters? Pacing? Structure? Who needs such things when you have, um… Penguins! And…a giant hole! And gay krill! (Seriously, I have no idea what the entertainment value is in this thing.)

There is also a lot of tap dancing.

But allow me to put on my Serious Hat for a moment.

“Happy Feet Two” does have some sporadically impressive visuals. And every now and again, during some of the song-and-dance sequences, it seems like the director almost starts giving a crap. Almost.

But the movie is so clearly a plain and simple cash grab. It does not expand the first one (of which I am not a fan) in any way, utilizing its characters mainly in perfunctory “this guy was in the first movie, remember” type roles. It barely has a story, and yet it still manages to launch into it too quickly without setting up the characters in any meaningful way. Plus, it is absolutely stuffed to bursting with unnecessary nonsense that’s only there because “Happy Feet Two” – Unnecessary Nonsense = Two Minutes of Movie.

It’s ultimately a “win-lose” movie. You can’t win by seeing it. It’s not particularly entertaining, and it certainly isn’t artful. Only the studio can win. It’s designed to make money, so it succeeds when it does. So, I guess my advice is that you don’t let it.

Or you can check it out and ensure an even more pointless “Happy Feet Three.” That’s up to you.

-Matt T.

The Avengers (2012)

Starring- Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany

Director- Joss Whedon

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence throughout, and a mild drug reference

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOrNdBpGMv8

Not every action movie has to be ‘The Dark Knight’!”

If you follow the annual summer blockbuster discussion at all, your stress stomachaches probably flashed back just now. I should probably apologize for that, actually.

Anyone who participates in these things knows that this is the current calling card. It doesn’t matter whether or not you actually invoke “The Dark Knight”—I certainly don’t, because I consider it an entirely different, incomparable beast than your average action movie. If someone is defending Generic Action Movie of the Week, and you’re saying you thought it was, well, generic, it is almost inevitable that you are going to hear/read that sentence.

Well, thank you, Joss Whedon. Thank you. Because from here on out, I have an answer: “Well, no, it doesn’t have to be ‘The Dark Knight.’ But is there any good reason on the planet Earth why it can’t be ‘The Avengers’?”

“The Avengers” gets the 2012 summer blockbuster season started in a big way. We’re not talking the openers from the last three years: “Thor” and “Iron Man 2,” which kind of sputtered off the starting line and left you thinking, “Well, it’s got potential, I guess,” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which pretty much killed it before it started. “The Avengers” is potential realized. It is everything it should have been, everything the fans wanted. It may be flawed in that it isn’t a lot more than the fans wanted, but let’s face it—the fans wanted a lot. It makes me retroactively wish that Joss Whedon had directed every superhero movie ever.

It ought to be required viewing for Michael Bay and company. It is everything his “Transformers” films wanted and failed to be. On that level, I’ve decided that the format of this review is going to go down a bit differently than the norm:

Watching “The Avengers”: A Guide for the Casual Summer Moviegoer

So, you’ve got nothing to do this weekend. You’ve got some money on hand and some friends who also have nothing to do this weekend. You figure, “Hey, I kind of liked those other superhero movies, and the trailers for ‘The Avengers’ reminded me a lot of those ‘Transformers’ movies that I liked way more than is probably good for me. Let’s go check that out.”*

And hey, you’re in for a treat. Trust me on this—you’re going to love it. It’s going to be like “The Dark Knight” all over again—not in its genre, tone, style, or even artistic quality, but in the effect that it has on you. It’s going to stick with you. You’re going to enjoy it in a way that you don’t normally.

Have you ever been curious as to why?

In this guide, I will attempt to provide you with an answer, to the best of my ability as it appears from my perspective. It will be long, but hopefully worthwhile. After all, my intention here is not merely to review “The Avengers,” but to firmly establish once and for all what a lot of film buffs actually want out of their action movies. And it’s not, as is often said, “The Godfather.”

THE PLOT

So, “The Avengers” is basically a sequel to all those other superhero movies you’ve been watching: “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Basically, Iron Man and those other guys. All of those movies dropped hints; this one finally realizes them.

The film brings back demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the villain of “Thor.” Disgraced and banished from Asgard, Loki seeks revenge and restored honor the best way he knows how—setting his sights on Earth, beloved by his celebrated brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

He gets in cahoots with a mysterious alien race and cuts a deal. They will lend him their army to conquer Earth, and in return, he will bestow upon them the Tesseract, a device containing powerful and unstoppable energy, the key to nearly unlimited power. Currently, it is on Earth, in the possession of SHIELD.

So, Loki heads down and borrows it, in so doing unlocking a gateway to Earth that unleashes an immense and nigh unstoppable army.

His best agents having failed, SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to revisit a cancelled program—the Avengers Initiative, a plan to unite extraordinary individuals under one banner for the salvation of Earth. In this case: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans); Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and, of course, Thor. Together, their job is simple—either save the Earth, or avenge it.

So, I’m not going to pretend that “The Avengers” is some kind of juggernaut of storytelling. I mean, you’ve probably said it yourself a thousand times: “I don’t go to these movies for the plot.” Does it really win substantial points over something like “Transformers” in this department? No. But you know what I can say about it? It has a three-act structure and some semblance of pacing.

The tendency with blockbusters—with a lot of the ones you maybe enjoy—is to play the entire deck of cards right off the bat and just keep rolling with it. However long it lasts is however long it lasts. Sometimes, it’s far too long.

“The Avengers,” being helmed by a guy who definitely knows what he’s doing where scripts are concerned (take it from me, a committed “Firefly” fanboy), understands that if you go into climax mode immediately, there’s not going to be any structure. It’s going to be fun for a little while, but sooner or later, it’s going to wind down to “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” If you batter us with action sequences, each equivalent to the last, the plot becomes meaningless, the characters more so. If the stakes do not go up, it will seem as though nothing matters.

The reason the climax of “The Avengers” is so effective—the reason it will have you out of your seat cheering, the reason it will leave you thrilled and excited—is because it’s a big freaking deal. The entire world is at stake, and you get a genuine feel for that fact. It’s not a fight the heroes can afford to lose. As such, their heroism becomes more compelling, their actions more necessary, and the scene itself more tense and exciting. The movie spaces out its action sequences, keeps them small and mostly plot-related at the beginning, and works its way up from there. It keeps things challenging for the heroes, presenting them with new obstacles, both internal and external. It allows tragedy to strike them. It allows them to fail, sometimes spectacularly. It brings their weaknesses and personal foils to the forefront. You get a genuine stance of where everyone stands and what it would mean for them to lose this fight. It matters. And you care. So, when their successes come, it is pure catharsis the likes of which meaningless destruction could never hope to replicate.

It is not a great story. It might not be art. There is art in it, I guess. There’s little of thematic interest, beyond broad strokes about teamwork and courage and all that. But it builds. And how it builds. And when it reaches that climactic event… Well, that one climax is worth much more than all seven of the ones in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”

While we’re on this subject…

THE ACTION

I won’t stay here too long, I promise, because I ultimately consider it second to the emotional interest, hence my general lack of interest previously expressed in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” Not to mention there are movies far better at action than “The Avengers”—Joss Whedon, for all his strengths, has never been the most visual director.

But there’s one shot in here I want to discuss. It comes during the final battle, the one almost exclusively showcased in the trailers. It’s just one shot, but it exemplifies the difference, in my mind, between this and “Transformers.”

As the battle rages, all the heroes come together and split up to execute a final plan of action. Each is given a different task to complete. The camera, in a single shot, flies through the streets of Manhattan, finds each hero individually, wrapped up in a unique and interesting battle, and then moves onto the next one, going up and down streets and alleys, around buildings, inside buildings, through the air, and every other way imaginable.

Not only do you get a sense of where everyone is and what they are doing, you see the scale of the thing. You understand how big it is, lending it a sense of import. You get the sense that this is a huge army, and it means business. Fortunately for us, so do Earth’s champions.

The action is not the greatest ever. But you see all of it. And Whedon knows how to build tension. One great way? Give us a fearless character, and then present us with the one thing that scares them. That will immediately put us on edge. It’s put to fantastic effect the first time Bruce Banner hulks out. He also gets that, every now and again, you’ve got to raise the stakes. There needs to be a new obstacle, a new objective, and it needs to be solved in a unique way. On top of that, he rarely employs human carnage for its own sake—death, in “The Avengers” means something. When civilians got vaporized in “Dark of the Moon,” I suspected I was supposed to enjoy it, and it angered me. When civilians are endangered in “The Avengers,” it’s scary, and you just want them to get out of there.

Joss Whedon is not the most visual director. But he fills the film with such an urgent sense of import that it all starts to matter. And then the audience has—gasp—emotions!

THE CHARACTERS

In “The Avengers,” there will be a number of moments when one character says or does something to another character, and you find yourself saying, “Oo, he’s not going to respond well to that!

Tell me—how many times have you thought that while watching “Transformers” or “G.I. JOE”? Pretty much never, because they don’t have characters with personalities who you come to understand. They serve roles in a plot, but not roles in a relationship. They don’t seem like people you’d know. When they do, they don’t seem like people you’d like.

And this may be the strongest point of “The Avengers.” The characters are strong, vibrant, full of personality, and they share a wonderful chemistry because of it. Captain America’s upstanding nobility, sense of national pride, and struggles to understand the new world in which he lives; Thor’s efforts to balance his arrogance against the fact that he feels responsible for unleashing this threat upon Earth; Bruce Banner’s forced calm with constant, simmering anger underneath, waiting to explode; Tony Stark’s self-absorbed but ultimately good and philanthropic heart. You know even before you go into the movie that some of these characters are going to get along very well, and some of them aren’t. You know which ones, and why. These personalities are endlessly combined throughout the film, allowing it to realize the greatest aspiration of crossovers—combining unrelated characters and seeing how they play off each other. “The Avengers” gives you that sense.

But it doesn’t stop there. “The Avengers” invests time even in the characters you’d expect to be the least interesting. Hawkeye is a stoic lone wolf who becomes a whirlwind of vengeance after Loki wrecks him thoroughly and wholly. Black Widow perhaps steals the show, her emotionless façade peeled back just long enough to reveal pain, a past, and a longing for atonement.

Nick Fury, however, may be the breakout star. Previously filling the role of the Boring Invincible Hardcore Awesome Military Guy, “The Avengers” inserts some moral ambiguity into him that makes me really intrigued as to where future sequels will take the character.

And I am not surprised by any of that. Like I said, I love “Firefly,” and I know why—it has extremely strong characters driving its plot forward. I would have been disappointed if that hadn’t carried over to “The Avengers.” Fortunately, it does. Whedon knows these guys, and it shows.

THE HUMOR

“The Avengers” is freaking hilarious. Like, funnier than most comedies. You should know that going in. Whedon has always had a knack for this witty, one-liner-driven comedy, and “The Avengers” is just stuffed with it. Lots of cutaway gags, tons of great sarcasm (mainly from Iron Man, naturally), even a little bit of physical comedy here and there. And it never feels out of place, because it’s derived from the characters and who they are. I didn’t think every joke worked, but a substantial majority of them did.

And the best part about it is this—no one, at any point, passed gas. Particularly not characters I’m supposed to take seriously. Nobody mooned the camera for reasons amounting to none at all. The Hulk at no point started humping a semi-truck or something. And let’s just call this last one the most significant—“The Avengers” is decidedly not racist. That one’s important to me.

I’ll leave you to figure out my motive for using those particular examples…

MISC.

I could honestly go on forever, but it’s been long enough, so I’ll shorten the rest of it. “The Avengers” never stoops to the lowest common denominator. In addition to keeping its humor both mature and actually funny, it also ensures that it humanizes all its characters. If you’re hoping for gratuitous long shots of Scarlett Johansson’s spandex-clad rear, you won’t find it.

And while it has every bit as much CGI as any given “Transformers” movie, it actually knows how to employ it. “The Avengers” understands that there is emotion in a special effect—wonder, fear, excitement, etc. It doesn’t just flash computerized creatures across the screen and call it a day; it hones in on their imagination and makes you feel a part of their world.

And the score… It’s far from Alan Silvestri’s best, but it’s nevertheless one of his finest in a few years, bombastic and fun and comprised of actual themes for once rather than just big drum beats and dramatic violin trills.

So, yeah, crackling humor, thrilling action, strong characters, actual humanity, little dabs of heart here and there… But I can’t sing its praises all day long, because let’s face it—it’s not perfect, exactly. A lot of that is realized in minor details, but they add up, to an extent.

Firstly, you do need to have seen the lead-in movies. You’ll understand it just fine without, but a lot of the character development is in there. “The Avengers” follows through rather than establishes. That much is all right, but it leaves the film lacking in some needed thrust early on.

Secondly, there are plot holes, or rather, things that don’t make as much sense as perhaps they should. In principle, I understood Loki’s plans with regards to the Helicarrier, but couldn’t help but wonder how it clicked in with his motivations or if there was any other way to do it that would perhaps be easier. I also don’t understand alien invasions that start in cities—yeah, Loki wants attention, but how many totally non-threatening targets do you have to blow up before you figure, “Okay, that’s enough”?

And finally, I’m still not clear on some of this superhero stuff. Loki makes it quite clear that Thor can be killed, but frankly, if you can take a flying, jet-powered, steel-clad Iron Man punch to the back of the head without even showing any bruising, I’m going to start to suspect. I also wonder what, exactly, constitutes “control” with regards to Bruce Banner and the Hulk, because it seems to come and go as the plot requires.

But what I am talking about, right? Who even cares? As largely empty-headed as it is, “The Avengers” is a freaking blast. It’s ironic that “Super 8,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” and, yes, “Captain America: The First Avenger” were actually trying to replicate the spirit and feel of the classic adventures, and yet it’s “The Avengers,” a decidedly modern summer blockbuster, that actually borderline succeeds. So, just go see it already. And two weeks from now, when you’re bored again and thinking about “Battleship,” do yourself a favor and see this again.

Have fun.

-Matt T.

*I can’t even praise “Transformers” movies when I’m playing a character. I seriously need help.

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

Starring- Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, Carla Gallo

Director- Cameron Crowe

PG- language and some thematic elements

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STXvAhrVP0U

MODERN COMMENTARY, NOVEMBER 2015:

I suspect, based on what I know about myself, that I wouldn’t care for this movie if I saw it again today. However, I have not, so…

“We Bought a Zoo” is exactly the movie you are expecting. The critics are right, the audiences are right, pretty much everyone is right. It’s like your average summer blockbuster—you know what you want to get out of it, and you will get exactly that, nothing more or less.

It’s kind of the movie I expected “The Help” was going to be, in that it’s impossible to dislike but pretty difficult to love. It’s too good-natured, and it means too well. But it’s also too syrupy and adorable to be considered nutritious.

Based on a true story in that really, really loose sense that pretty much all of these are, “We Bought a Zoo” follows Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a journalist/adventurer who’s been brought to ground level by the death of his wife, leaving him to raise their two children, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), by himself. Searching for a fresh start after Dylan gets expelled from school, he begins hunting for a new house in a new neighborhood. Finally, he finds the perfect one—old, rustic, in the countryside, surrounded by hills and forests. He’s ready to sign the deal, but there’s a catch—the house is a zoo. Literally.

Closed down a few years prior, the zoo now contains only the animals and its few remaining staff, including head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson). If it’s going to survive, it will need to reopen—the sooner the better.

Taking a chance, Benjamin buys the property and invests his entire life savings in getting the zoo up and running, all the while navigating the grief of his broken family.

“We Bought a Zoo” finds Matt Damon back in Matt Damon mode—frequently, throughout this review, I’ve had to consciously force myself not to type “Damon” in every time I mean “Benjamin.” After an impressive turn in 2010’s “True Grit,” here, he’s treading old ground. But that’s okay, because Damon is likable and sympathetic as a lead in most of his more dramatic material. It actually goes a long way in saving this thing.

The film as a whole, possibly due to Cameron Crowe’s involvement, has an Academy Awards sensibility that elevates it above most cheesy and inspiring family fare. He does coax some great performances out of certain cast members. Colin Ford made a solid first impression on me in this one. It also reaffirms that Scarlett Johansson actually can act when she’s given, you know, actual material. Between the performance she gives and the extent to which the film dresses her down, I was actually convinced that she could be a rough-and-tumble, down-in-the-dirt zookeeper who understands animals better than people. If you’ve seen this woman, you understand what an incredible accomplishment that is.

It also treads more lightly around human emotions than do other films of this sort. It feels a smidge more genuine and heartfelt, because it seems more like something actual humans would experience. It allows these moments to breathe and become complicated and interesting. Does it usually resolve them with cheesy moral platitudes? Well, yes. But at least it hints at greater depth. At the very least, that’s something to keep the adults engaged.

As a film about a family coping with the loss of a mother, it is ultimately inferior to “The Descendants.” You know…shocker.That movie had a better handle on the complexity of human emotions overall, and certainly had a better grasp of subtlety. But if I can give “We Bought a Zoo” credit in one significant area, it’s that it does a better job of establishing the role the mother played in the family and in the lives of its individual members than did “The Descendants,” despite the fact that both films begin after she has already passed. That lends a layer of emotion to the proceedings, because you understand the specific nature of the loss.

But it is such a mixed bag.

Firstly, while some of the characterizations are good, at least in the sense that they are likable and/or sporadically compelling, a lot of them are all over the place. Kelly’s introduction implies that there’s going to be a lot of tension between her and Benjamin, but that gets dropped almost immediately. You get the impression that she’s hotheaded, independent, and stubborn, but these things don’t really follow through. She takes his side much more quickly than you’d expect.

Some of the characters, too, are just too flimsy to begin with. Much of that actually stems from a related problem with the film—its inability to decide if it is family-friendly Oscar bait or if it is a goofy kids’ movie. The villain, an uptight zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins), is introduced in a scene that is almost jarringly cartoonish. One of the zoo employees, a drunken Irishman (Angus Macfadyen), exists in order to be a drunken Irishman. Another employee (Patrick Fugit) has as his defining (and only) characteristic the fact that he always has a monkey on his shoulder. It’s this weird comedy stuff that feels out of place smashed between heartfelt conversations about love and loss.

But the film’s biggest, most constant, and most aggravating flaw is—say it with me now. It is cute, adorable, schmaltzy, overdone, and heavy-handed occasionally bordering on completely obnoxious. The little girl, Rosie, for example is not a character who experiences actual emotions so much as a vessel for cuteness and adorable beyond-her-years wisdom. She does not participate in any of the actual emotional conflict.

But even that would be a minor thing. The worst part of this—the film’s most obnoxious aspect—is a part of it that I don’t often criticize: the score. And how. This is another film like “TRON: Legacy” that sees a musician—in this case, Jonsi—making the transition into film scoring. It does not end nearly as well. Jonsi, in case you don’t know, is a lot like Owl City, in that it’s listenable and pleasant for a few minutes until your teeth start to hurt. So, imagine that, only a whole movie.

Half the time, the schmaltz and cutesiness isn’t even in the script. There were a lot of times, particularly where Benjamin and his son were concerned, when I found myself thinking, “You know, this would actually work really well as a quiet, restrained moment, so Jonsi—shut up and let it be one.

It’s so loud and overbearing that not only does it make it abundantly clear exactly what the viewer is supposed to be feeling at any given time, it sometimes actively detracts from the moment. There where scenes that I ended up saying, “Woah. Woah! Jonsi! Jonsi! It’s just a shot of a guy sitting there! Relax, dude! If you played rock music at this pacing and volume, you could head-bang to it! Bring it back in, Jonsi. Bring it back. Jonsi! Jonsi! And… And, yup, he’s gone. Yeah.”

It isn’t even properly timed. These are more standalone songs than accents to the scene, because they frequently come in out of nowhere and cut off before the track is even over.

It is, in the end, possibly the worst score I have ever heard in a movie. (Okay, second-worst… It’d be the worst if I didn’t know about “Mesa of the Lost Women.” Thank you, RiffTrax.) At the very least, it is the single most cloying.

Through it all, “We Bought a Zoo” is loaded with feeling, some of it genuine, most of it superficial. It’s a decent movie that’s dragged down to ‘generally okay’ because of the score that seems to be trying to sabotage it. There’s a good movie in it somewhere; I can find little bits and pieces of it buried here and there when I pick it apart. It’s the dramatic equivalent of downing, like, sixty candy bars, but hey—at least it tastes all right.

 

-Matt T.