Monday, May 28, 2012

Movie Review: "Lethal Weapon 2" by David Pretty

What do you do when all the best cinema villains have already been beaten into submission?  With action films already a-swarm with Commies and Nazis, the scribes of Lethal Weapon 2 decided to solve this conundrum by ripping a page out of the headlines.

Unfortunately, that was over twenty years ago.

In the mid-Eighties South Africa was still employing its ass-backward program of apartheid which attempted to legitimize racial segregation and curtail the rights of the black population under white minority rule.  Needless to say, this policy was pretty unpopular just about everywhere.  "Conscience rockers" like Little Steven, U2 and Peter Gabriel seized on the hot button issue and used the medium of music to cast a glaring spotlight on this blatantly antiquated doctrine.

By 1989 Lethal Weapon 2 could have received a flag for "piling on" but the results were refreshingly original and fundamentally distasteful.  It was so high-profile, in fact, that F. W. de Klerk started the process of ending apartheid only a year after the picture was released.  Indeed, there's precious little here that South Africa would ever want to include in a tourism brochure.

Although the villainy level has clearly been jacked up for dramatic effect, Joss Ackland as Arjen Rudd still makes for a cold-fish / ripe bastard of the first order.  He's also one of the first action movie creeps to hide behind the pansy-assed "You can't hurt me! I have DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!" defense.

I'm sorry, but the first time this douchebag drops that particular bon mot, you'll want to leap through the screen and push your thumbs into his orbital sockets.  He's also surrounded by a veritable Rouge's Gallery of scum-baggery, notably Derrick O'Connor's as the uber-slimy Pieter Vorstedt, who's very presence will have you counting the seconds until he's exterminated.

Our two heroes Riggs and Murtaugh are more than up for the challenge.  The two have settled into a pitch-perfect alliance and their blossoming man-love is downright palpable.  Riggs isn't quite as proactively suicidal here but he's no less reckless.  He gets a few choice scenes with Roger's wife Trish (Darlene Love) which delves into his back story and adds to the character's appeal.

Danny Glover also gets more opportunities to shine, serving up one-liners like "Nailed 'em both!" with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  He manages to deliver most of his dialogue with improvisation ease and his banter with Gibson is as natural as a squabbling married couple.

There are some genuine moments of humor here as well, such as the immortal "death by toilet" sequence.  When Murtaugh, sans pants, finds himself astride Riggs in a bathtub while an airborne commode drives a stake through the heart of a certain beleaguered station wagon, any viewer not made of stone will find themselves giggling uncontrollably.

And who can forget Joe Pesci's star-making turn as "Whatever You Want" Leo Getz?  When it came to this amusing (but ultimately annoying) little fuck, less was more, which is something future entries in the series regrettably ignored.  Also of note is British actress Patsy Kensit, who makes for a distracting bit of crumpet until she's turned into the screenplay's pariah.  Finally, hardcore film buffs will have fun spotting former Colonial Marines Jenette Goldstein and Mark Rolston as both cop and robber respectively.

The action really gets dialed up to "11" here.  There are more car chases and guns-a-blazin' fireworks in the first eight minutes than there was in the entire run time of its predecessor.  Again, contemporary audiences might consider the villain's origins obscure, the tropes a bit derivative and the action sequences relatively mundane but, honestly, this is one of the first buddy cop flicks where our heroes take off the badges because "NOW IT'S PERSONAL".

Granted, this is also one of the first action films to start straining credibility.  Conveniently tying Vorsted into Martin's past is pretty far-fetched and our two protagonists certainly would have been locked indefinitely after the insane orgy of mayhem they unleash at the film's climax.

Regardless, Lethal Weapon 2 is a fun thrill ride that, in some ways, is even more satisfying than its predecessor.  Check your brain at the door, grab some beer and pretzels and get ready for another helping of "Action Movie Chicken Soup for the Soul".

   Tilt: up.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Movie Review: "Lethal Weapon" by David Pretty

There an old joke about a pair of seniors who go to see Hamlet.  As the pair are walking out of the theatre the woman turns to her husband and asks: "So, what did you think of it?" and the old man replies: "Meh.  I've heard it all before!"

Lethal Weapon is the Hamlet of buddy cop movies.  It's been ripped off by so many lesser films that watching the original is akin to playing "spot the cliché" for a hundred and ten minutes.

If you have a pen and paper handy, kids, you can play along at home.  See how many you can jot down while watching the film's trailer...

Here are just a few of the hoary old tropes to be found in Lethal Weapon...
  • We've got a by-the-book veteran cop / family man who's just days from retirement.  
  • Suddenly he's partnered up with a young, reckless, borderline-suicidal rogue.  
  • The veteran cop says "I'm too old for this shit" not once, not twice, but thrice!  
  • The bad guy is inexplicably albino.  
  • There's equal parts homophobia and homo-eroticism.  
  • Al Leong makes an obligatory appearance as a goon. 
  • The bad guys target the good cop's family.  
  • Bad puns abound ("What did one shepherd say to the other shepherd? Let's get the flock out of here!").  
  • Our heroes are summarily tortured and/or worked over by the aforementioned Monsieur Leong.  
  • The main villain manages an eleventh hour, "Hail Mary" last gasp attack and is collectively shot down by our protagonists.  
It may sound as if I'm giving the film a blast of shit, but I'm not.  After all, these guys did it first, they did it well and they didn't completely throw out physics and the laws of reality.  Given that people have the attention span of a squirrel nowadays, Lethal Weapon must seem almost quaint and borderline pedestrian to them.  But, by God, it's got charm and watching it again after so many years is like putting on an old pair of action movie slippers.

The gloriously be-mulleted Mel Gibson (who's seems loopier than average in this one) actually has a few scenes of genuine emotional heft.  We're in the guy's corner within the first half-hour or so because his BELOVED WIFE died in a CAR CRASH and he CAN'T GO ON LIVING WITHOUT HER.  Only THE JOB gives him the will to carry on.  Richard Donner might be going for the garbage goal on this one, but it really generates a lot of sympathy for Riggs.

And what the fudge (to borrow a cue from bad prime-time dubbing) happened to Danny Glover anyway?  The dude just oozes charisma here and he's a joy to watch.  Together the two make for one of the best "odd couple" cop pairings in cinema history.

Also check out the big acting chops on Gary Busey before he went all nuts in real life (Hmmm, maybe there's some sort of Poltergeist-like curse at work here).  As the pigment-and-conscience-deficient merc Joshua he's ruthless and easily hate-able but not in a lame, melodramatic "Snidely Whiplash" kinda way.

Once knocked for being "unrealistic" and "wild", the action beats in Lethal Weapon look like The Wire when comparison to video game flotsam like Crank: High Voltage.  I know the film is somewhat dated and downright low-gear when compared to the current generation of action films, but bless its modest little heart.  It's still a lot of fun to see the cast preserved here in all of their late-Eighties glory.

When you watch it next time, just put the checklist away and indulge in the equivalent of some action movie comfort food.

     Tilt: up.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Movie Review "The Road Warrior" by David Pretty

Felicitations, Road-Ragers! 

The whole Mad Max concept came to a head with its 1981 sequel The Road Warrior.  The Miller/Kennedy team returned with a bigger budget this time, delivering a follow up which honored its roots but could also stand alone as a separate film.  Although Mad Max was a smash in Australia, it didn't export very well, even after the producers were forced to dub the cast with ludicrously overwrought American accents.  Even American-born (and soon-to-be-ridiculously-famous) Mel Gibson came off sounding like a used car salesman!

Before we strap ourselves into our Interceptor and go off in search of the precious juice, here's the film's nitrous-fueled trailer:

The apocalyptic future presaged by the first film has come to pass and there's a genuine feeling of de-evolution in The Road Warrior.  To help establish the second film as an original entry, we get a short narrative prologue informing us that global order has collapsed in the face of a chronic fuel shortage.  To make matters worse "two mighty warrior tribes" have gone to war and life has now become a "whirlwind of looting and a firestorm of fear, in which men began to feed on men."  The incredible thing is, the more you research the concept of peak oil, the more eerily prescient this all seems to be.

During this set up we see clips of an impossibly youthful-looking Gibson frolicking with his fictional wife Joanne Samuel, which probably had audiences in the Eighties scratching their heads since most people had no idea that The Road Warrior was a sequel.  After killing the Toecutter's gang, Max wanders out into the wasteland and learns to live off the corpse of the old world.  His only resources are his trusted Blue Heeler appropriately named "Dog", a barely-functional sawed-off shotgun and what remains of his precious V-8 Interceptor.

His unearthly skills behind the wheel serve him well as he confronts a gang of road scum over a crashed gas tanker.  Victorious, he makes off with the precious cargo inside and soon encounters a similarly-abandoned gyro copter.  Initially snared in a trap, Max craftily outwits the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) and prepares to do him in.  The pilot barters successfully for his life when he tells Max that there's a facility nearby that's producing a limitless supply of petrol.

Intrigued, Max discovers a working oil refinery besieged by an army of marauding scumbags armed with weapons and deadly vehicles.  This human detritus is led by the pistol-toting, goalie-masked, impossibly-ripped Lord Humongous, who's been trying in vain to get the settlers to surrender using a combination of threats, violence and sweet talking.

After retrieving one of the settlers mortally wounded by the gang, Max manages to weasel his way into the good graces of the refinery's leader Papagallo (Michael Preston).  He strikes a deal to retrieve a rig which the settlers plan to use as bait while the civilians make a break for it.  As the film continues to unspool we're treated to some increasingly spectacular automotive duels and watch as Max struggles to rise above the savagery of the world around him.

The Road Warrior does what all good sequels should do: it expands on the vision of the original.  The story is considerably more focused, like a sci-fi twist on the "Man With No Name" westerns.  The costumes are spectacular, launching a slew of copycat films and influencing about a million heavy metal videos.  The vehicles are also appropriately bizarre and you really get the sense that these things have been cobbled together from a million different sources.

The breakneck action on display here is probably why I have such contempt for Michael Bay's films.  There's not one frame of CGI here folks, just a shit-load of ballsy stunt work and motorized mangling is unrivaled.  The final assault on the tanker is shot with a series of wide angles so it's easy to see that there were no cheats.  Every kill, collision and desperate skirmish is planned out with vicious precision.

There's also a helluva lot more going on here besides vehicular anarchy.  Whereas the first film is a straight-up revenge fantasy, The Road Warrior is a story of redemption.  This is never more apparent then when Max encounters the animal-skin clad, metal boomerang-wielding Feral Kid (Emil Minty).

While thinking about his own lost son, Max gives the child a mangled music box.  Not long after, Max  catches the outback urchin literally following in his own footsteps.  Disturbed by the prospects of getting emotionally attached to something else that might be taken away from him, Max throws the young stowaway's gear out of his car.  Needless to say, the effect is pretty heart-wrenching, even for what's supposed to be a hard-boiled sci-fi flick.

The performances are all top-notch.  Intense, evasive and self-assured, Gibson handily makes Max one of cinema's greatest anti-heroes.  Bruce Spence's unique appearance and oddball mannerisms make his Gyro Captain a ridiculously memorable character.  The villains in this one also make the "Toecutter" from the first film look like a member of One Direction.

Max's story did continue in Beyond Thunderdome but that film was marred somewhat by real tragedy when producer Byron Kennedy was killed while scouting for locations.  Rumor has it that director George Miller lost his passion for the project and the final film seems to echo this somewhat.

Nevertheless, that doesn't diminish this tremendous film, which I have to put towards the top of my list of all-time favorites.

Tilt: up.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Movie Review: "The Avengers" by David Pretty

Excelsior, True Believers!

Y'know, as great as some comic book films have been, most of them have been completely devoid of one key ingredient: pure unadulterated fun.  The Avengers is Joss Whedon's learned response to this deficit, making his movie something of modern miracle.

Hell, there's more fun packed into the film's theatrical trailer then there is in the entire run time of most summer blockbusters...

When I first heard about an Avengers movie I really didn't think that it would work.  My biggest fear was that it would end up like a superhero version of House of Frankenstein; I.E too much of a good thing.  Besides, how could they possibly hope to convince all of these A-list actors to willingly share the marquee?   How could the screenwriters possibly come up with a suitably epic crisis?  How could all of these characters co-exist in the same space together without rending apart the very fabric of our universe?

But when I heard that Joss Whedon was tapped to write and direct ssuddenly all fears were allayed.

"Okay, Scarlett in this scene you bludgeon an A.I.M. agent to death with a DVD copy of Home Alone 3."

Back in the Dark Ages, the only qualification that a prospective comic book movie director had to posses was the ability to be "visual".  After they were hired, these film-makers would go out of their way to tell everyone within earshot that they were "fans" of the funny book in question when they were kids.  Then they'd unerringly deliver a final product that completely changed or virtually eliminated everything in the comic that they supposedly loved.

In the next epoch of comic book movie evolution, accomplished film-makers such as Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn were handed the ball.  What these guys lacked in encyclopedic comic book knowledge they more then made up for it in their rare and valuable ability to capture and quantify the spirit of the original source material.


But in Joss Whedon, fans have finally gotten The Perfect Storm.  Not only is he a bona-fide, died-in-the-wool, card-carrying comic book geek, he's actually written a few that are considered modern classics of the medium.  If anything, the pendulum has completely flipped the other way.  Going into The Avengers I was concerned that Whedon might not be able to deliver a visually striking film.

I am sorry that I ever doubted you, My Liege.  Even if it was but for a mere moment of personal failing...  

Oh, whoops.  Did I just type that?  I was only supposed to think it.

With plenty of geeky plot points lovingly seeded in previous Marvel films, story masters Whedon and Zak Penn seem to be relishing the harvest.  Anyone who's followed Joss's serialized works in the past (like Buffy, Angel and Firefly) knows that he's a huge sucker for continuity and The Avengers is no exception.  Whedon's solo-penned screenplay is the clarion voice of one talented writer who actually knows how to make a complicated celluloid juggling act pay off.

"Honestly, Sam, with Kinect bowling it's all about the follow-through." 

The first hint of Marvel Universe cross-pollination occurred in 2008 as a post-credit sequence in Jon Favreau's excellent adaptation of Iron Man.  In this brief segment we're introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) the no-nonsense director of a shadowy espionage team known as S.H.I.E.L.D.  Fury infiltrates the office of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), deflates his ego by telling him that he "isn't the only superhero in the world" and then broaches the tantalizing subject of the "Avenger's Initiative".   Hmmmmmmm...

This was nudged along in a follow-up segment which came at the end of The Incredible Hulk in 2008. After watching Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) achieve some semblance of control over his dark side, we're then privy to a meeting between Tony Stark and disgraced Hulk-hunter General Ross (William Hurt).  Stark tells him that "we're putting a team together", presumably to keep tabs on a certain emerald-hued rage monster.  


Then Iron Man 2 gave us another interesting story element that Whedon effortlessly managed to weave into The Avengers.  Inspired by his father's legacy, Tony Stark discovers a new element and then finds himself on the verge of developing a clean and fully-sustainable form of energy.  We were also introduced to the beautiful but deadly Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) whom Fury had tasked to gage Stark's ability to work and play well with others.

In last year's Captain America, the diabolical Red Skull was using a mysterious artifact known as the Tesseract (née the Cosmic Cube) to create an arsenal of advanced weapons.  When Cap (Chris Evans) was plopped into the arctic ocean at the climax of his eponymous film, the cube was lost with him.  Tony Stark's pop Howard manages to recover the Tesseract, which proves to be the optimal Duracell battery for his sustainable energy project.

"Hey, what did you mean by 'spangly'?" 

Finally, at the climax of Thor, the Thunder God's half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was laid low and cast down into the Abyss.  A post-credits sequence in that film showed Fury tasking Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) with tapping into the "unlimited power" of the Tesseract.  In a sly cinematic moment there's a quick glimpse of Loki's reflexion in the background, clearly indicating that the Asgardian's corrupting influence will soon be felt.

Let's face it folks, there's nothing more comic booky then a series of epic cross-overs.  I don't know who first proposed this brilliant idea but he or she deserves to get a free island in the Caymans this year as a Christmas bonus.  Whedon, a recreational fan of Marvel Lore, not only manages to tie all of this together, he makes it pay off in spades.

In doing so, he single-handedly neuters every argument that the Star Wars prequels weren't supremely shitty after all, just a victim of over-hype.  The Avengers proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that in the hands of a smart and well-invested creative team, a film can not only meet expectations but completely trump them.

With the unearthly success of The Avengers, will geeks lose their best kept secret to Hollywood forever?  

True to the post-credit tidbits, Loki has indeed been restored to full form by the leader of an aggressive alien race known as the Chitauri.  In exchange for his liberation, the mysterious Other demands that the God of Mischief recover the Tesseract.  The Other has pledged an entire army towards Loki's goal of subjugating the Earth should he succeed in this.

The Tesseract proves to be too volatile for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s scientists to handle and Loki soon emerges from a portal created by the cube.  After placing Selvig and the uncanny archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under his thrall, Loki absconds with the Tesseract just as the S.H.I.E.L.D. base turns into a Sunnydale-style sinkhole.


Knowing that it's only a matter of time before Loki taps into the power of the Tesseract, there's a call to assemble the Avengers.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is immediately drawn to the dark machinations of his step-brother, the Black Widow is dispatched to India pull Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) out of hiding, utility Agent Coulson (Robert Clark Gregg) gives Tony Stark a homework assignment and Nick Fury tries to coax the recently-defrosted Captain America (Chris Evans) back into action.

Needless to say things don't go according to plan.  If I didn't know any better I'd swear that Whedon actually used the film's potential pitfalls as story fodder.  Captain America is instantly rankled by Iron Man's cocky selfishness, Iron Man shows open contempt for Cap's antiquated and mindless "do or die" attitude, Bruce Banner is immediately wary of Fury's motivations, the Black Widow catches heat for being a S.H.I.E.L.D. attack dog and Thor resents human intervention in what he sees as a domestic dispute.  Oh, and he's also completely preoccupied with baiting the Hulk.   

"Methinks I can take him."

Since I believe that people who deal in spoilers should be Dragon Punched right in the Danger Zone, you'll get no more plot points out of me.  I'll just allude to some of the awesome things which will have any self-respecting comic book geek giggling like a pleased infant...
  • As soon as I laid eyes on the Other, I was impressed that Whedon had tapped such an obscure but powerful villain.  Bravo, sir.    
  • Apparently Tony Stark and I share similar taste in music.
  • Shell-head vs. Goldilocks.  'Nuff said.
  • Coulson's card collection.
  • Whedon finally answers the question: "So, what would happen if Thor smoked Captain America right in the...shield?"          
  • Galaga
  • Jane Foster's cameo via headshot.  
  • "'Monkeys'.  I understood that reference!"  
  • Even when facing off against Asgardians, Cap's faith is unshakable.  
  • The Hulk's impersonation of Bamm-Bamm.  And his subsequent line
  • Shawarma.
  • Tony Stark compares Thor to Bodhi.
  • Cap's bet with Nick Fury.
  • The Black Widow being "interrogated". 
  • The sucker punch to end all sucker punches.
  • Cap's old-fashioned nosiness beats modern technology.
  • Three partial words: Heli-fucking-carrier.
  • "You people are so petty...and tiny."
  • Thor's comeback to the Black Widow RE: bad apple Loki.
  • Cap's key to giving orders to the Hulk: Keep It Simple Stupid.  
  • Tony's theory on how Banner's been staying so "mellow". 
  • "Ladies and gentlemen, the dotty genius of Harry Dean Stanton." 
  • Iron Man's line to Hawkeye just prior to blast-off.
  • Stan Lee's obligatory cameo.
  • Loki catches major heat from Hawkeye.
  • The Hulk's tremendous catch.
  • Tony's paranoia about being molested while unconscious.
"Mr. Force, I'd like for you to meet someone..."

And honestly, people, I've just scratched the surface.

I loved Whedon's theatrical Firefly capper Serenity, but for a sci-fi film it really didn't have a particularly gregarious visual style.  This isn't the case with The Avengers.  The action scenes pulse with dynamic life.  Except for a briefly zoomed-in but kinetic melee between Thor and Loki, things are shot at a distance, allowing the audience to easily follow the scale and logistics of the battles.  The film also features some crackerjack editing by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek.

"You take the fourteen thousand on the left..."

Whedon also comes up with some genius set-ups.  I loved the flippy exploding car-cam, the image of the heroes reflected in a discarded rear view mirror and the amazing continuous shot of Cap charging up the alien-ravaged streets of New York City like he's storming the beaches of Normandy.

But it's the cast that makes The Avengers truly transcendent.  Once again Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is exactly what you'd expect of a self-professed "genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist".  He's a gleefully manic wiseass motor-mouth who always seems three steps ahead of everyone else.  But of all the characters, it's Iron Man who experiences the most dramatic arc after exposure to the group dynamic.  Faced with the realization that he no longer holds a monopoly on being "super", Tony experiences a genuine epiphany here.

"Truth be told, my favorite Sabbath song is actually 'The Wizard'."  

At the conclusion of Captain America, Steve Rogers was trying to come to grips with his Rip Van Winkle syndrome.  In The Avengers, Chris Evans really gets a chance to run with this and for an ensemble ("Assemble?") piece his character development is considerable.  Cap starts the film as morose and dispossessed, only scoring small victories when he succeeds at understanding a modern reference.

But as the story advances, his place amongst the technological marvels, demi-gods and invulnerable Goliaths starts to come into focus.  As powerful as the Avengers are individually, none of them really possess any tactical skill.  There's a tremendous moment late in the film when everyone just realizes that Cap is the best possible leader for the group.  When this happens, you can almost see Evans shed his invisible chains and come alive.

"C'mon, guys, how 'bout a sing along?  I assume everyone knows the words to 'Camptown Races'?"

Since I'm also a huge continuity junky, I would love to have seen Ed Norton reprise his role as Bruce Banner.  Unfortunately, contract talks broke down between the actor and the studio, precluding his involvement in The Avengers.  The good news is, the producers managed to procure the incredible talents of Mark Ruffalo.

In order to assimilate the character, Ruffalo has come up with something really special here.  His line readings are coiled and eccentric, his appearance is appropriately threadbare, and his body language screams "powder keg".  When Loki's divisive influence begins to gnaw at him, Ruffallo single-handedly generates an aura of impending catastrophe.  This is pretty remarkable, considering that that the room is also garrisoned by a deity.

"Actually, you probably wouldn't even like me when I'm vaguely inconvenienced."

Speak of the devil, let's just come out and say this right now: Chris Hemsworth is Thor.  Say what you want about him cruising on his physical suitability or appropriately Asgardian delivery, the dude is also a good nuts- n'-bolts actor who can effortlessly portray the otherworldly bearing of a Thunder God.  In The Avengers, Hemsworth's Thor assumes the mantle of guilt that Loki is incapable of.  His inability to make his half-brother do the right thing comes out in palpable waves of frustration.

Hiddleston himself is also fantastic: duplicitous, silver-tongued and supremely full of himself.  Any villain that gets cheered after being slammed around so much is obviously doing something right.  Honestly, Hiddleson is so much fun to watch that he largely dismantles my main gripe about the film, which is the been there, done that quality of the invading threat.

"Verily, am I not beautiful?"

I'm very pleased to see an expanded role for Scarlett Johansson.  In addition to exploring the more intriguing facets of Black Widow's troubled headspace and rocky past, Scarlett (and her vastly unsung stunt double) go to great lengths to serve up some stellar action beats.  If it's been your cinematic wish to watch a hot girl beat up a goon while strapped to a chair then run, don't walk, to see The Avengers.

The highly-adept Jeremy Renner rounds out the Avenger's roster as archer-supreme Hawkeye.  Due to the nature of the story, his character is the only one who gets a bit shortchanged.  Whedon rewards Renner's early function as an automaton by giving him a slew of bad-ass lines and some meaningful moments with Scarlett Johansson in the second half of the film.  The scene in which the two ponder their checkered past and current roles as human projectiles is particularly noteworthy.

"Mockingbird!?!?  Really?!?!"

The supporting cast also contributes to the film's equation of awesome.  Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury to crankily exasperated perfection.  He's toned down his trademark bombast in lieu of a more sober bearing, like a man who truly has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He comes across as refreshingly disarmed in the sequence where he's confronted by Cap.

Also we've come a long way with Agent Phil Coulson, having seen him in almost every Marvel film since 2008.  Clark Gregg has always had tremendous fun with this part, portraying the fed as a disarmingly witty, yet subtly intimidating man-child.  His scenes with Robert Downey Jr., Gweneth Paltrow and Chris Evans are banter-iffic.  In many ways, Coulson is the audience, trying his damnedest to remain cool and authoritative while a riot of imaginative insanity runs wild all around him.

"Alas, friend Coulson, even the Odinson hath failed to best thine score in yon archaic shooter."

And say what you want about Gweneth Paltrow's sometimes-bizarre Martha Stewart-style peccadilloes, I still love her for doing a cameo here as Pepper Potts.  Honestly, I think that she's just adorable.  So good is her chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. that I hereby insist that she divorce Chris Martin and marry Robert Downey Jr. post haste.  It just makes more sense to me.

And as if How I Met Your Mother didn't give me enough incentive, B.C.-born Cobie Smulders is totally going on my list.  She's authoritative, gung-ho and inordinately sexy while running around, shouting orders, firing guns and rockin' a skin-tight blue bodysuit like nobody's bidness.  What can I say, I'm a fan of any gal who's name is weirder then my own.

She's thinkin' about me in this photo.  I can tell.  

Like any good comic book, the script for The Avengers actually tackles a few real-world issues.  Stark's interest in sustainable energy feels ripped right from the headlines.  The decidedly hawkish theory of insuring personal, national and global security through overt weaponization is particularly timely.  Themes of teamwork, loyalty and self-sacrifice abound.  All of this gives your brain something to munch on, even as we thrill to the visceral sight of the Hulk punching out a giant, flying bio-mechanical eel.  In many ways, The Avengers is kinda like a post-Transformers palate-cleanser.

Yes, there's definitely a point when an endless salvo of sound and fury gets fired at us.  But because Whedon and company have invested in the characters, theme and story so much, we don't become numb to the spectacle.  The experience never feels hollow.  

Above all, The Avengers proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a comic book movie doesn't have to be "dark" in order to be good.  More then any of his predecessors, Whedon truly displays a fundamental grasp on what makes the four-color medium work.

Turns out all you have to do is make your characters real, pack some relevant issues underneath the hood and come up with a genuine reason to fight even before someone throws a single punch.  

Tilt: up.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Movie Review: "Iron Man 2" by David Pretty

Iron Man 2 does something that isn't always a given when it comes to sequels: it doesn't embarrass itself.  Conversely it also doesn't distinguish itself a whole lot.

Here's the film's trailer, which I'd promptly like to have stricken from the record since it looks awesome and, as such, is completely counter-intuitive to my argument.  

The follow up to 2008's triumphant super-hero opus sees our hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) dealing with a slew of new variables.  Elements within the U.S. Government are growing increasingly twitchy that a self-indulgent, egotistical playboy is in sole custody of the Iron Man armor.  A rival industrialist named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying to accelerate and commercialize the same technology.  A psychotic super-villain calling himself Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) comes out of the woodwork with a grudge against the Stark name.  As if that wasn't enough, Tony discovers that he's slowly being killed by the the very same arc reactor which powers his crippled heart.

Additional wild cards come into play when Tony makes Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) C.E.O. of Stark Industries, allows the enigmatic Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) into his inner circle, hits the bottle pretty hard during a champagne supernova birthday bash, butts heads with formal military pal James Rhodes and tries to glean the motivations of mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). 

As you can see, a lot of STUFF happens in Iron Man 2 but it often plays out like a checklist of what the film-makers wanted to shoe-horn into the picture versus what should organically emerge from a well-crafted story. 
Jon Favreau needs to thank the casting gods every day for making Robert Downey Jr. available to him.  Even if the titular hero only appeared for five minutes at the end of the film, it would still be worth watching just to see Downey being put through his paces as Tony Stark.  His scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow are a showcase for well-delivered verbal sparring, but this is overused somewhat and threatens to become as annoying as an average episode of the Gilmore Girls.

In IM2 the always-awesome Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as James "Rhodey" Rhodes (rumor has it that Howard rubbed director Jon Favreau the wrong way at some point).  It's likely that my lack on interest in the character here isn't due to any failing on Cheadle's part and more of a symptom of how underwritten the role seems to be.

Mickey Rourke is pretty intense as Whiplash/Ivan Vanko but his marble-mouthed deliveries and inexplicable penchant for birds seems more like the peccadilloes of a certain eccentric actor versus something that was scripted.  Scarlett Johansson makes ample use of her brief screen time and wows us with a self-assured turn and a heaping side-order of ass-kickery.

The real plum performance, however, comes from Sam Rockwell as the smarmy, slimy Justin Hammer.  He's portrayed a lot younger in the film versus the comics but I really don't mind this since Hammer now functions as a weaker and more ethically unsound version of Tony Stark.  Rockwell has a blast with the part and the audience also has fun counting down the seconds towards his inevitable comeuppance.

Favreau does improve on the flying sequences and manages to orchestrate some high-octane action beats as well.  The final battle is fun and dynamic but looks kind of dark and muddled.  It also feels underwhelmingly truncated; a pall that regrettably seems to hang over the rest of the film as well.

In fact, I can't help but feel as if large chunks of the movie were excised.  For example, promotional material exists which references a love interest for Pepper Potts and the scene in which she tosses Tony's Iron Man helmet out of the cargo plane is no-where to be seen.  It wouldn't surprise me that Favreau thought that the film was becoming too much of a product by committee and got a tad "snip-happy" in the editing bay, perhaps fearing a "too many cooks"/Spiderman 3 scenario. 

Indeed Iron Man 2 doesn't quite have the sleek look and "new armor smell" of its predecessor but the movie is still held together by the presence of Robert Downey Jr at the helm as well as its unabashed commitment to providing some genuinely geeky fun.

  Tilt: down.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Movie Review: "Mad Max" by David Pretty

Hey, kids!  Remember when Mel Gibson was only crazy in the movies?  Yeah, sadly neither can do I, which is why I sat down recently to revisit Mad Max.   
There are two major actor archetypes: character actors like Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton and then there are leading-man types. Like Harrison Ford and Cary Grant, Mel Gibson always seems to be riffing on variations of a certain cinema identity ... read more Now there are two types of actors out there: brave chameleons who willingly vanish inside the skin of oddball characters and leading-man types who don't like to stray very far away from playing idealized versions of themselves.  Whether it be by chance or deliberate engineering, Mel Gibson has always gravitated towards roles that depict him as noble but kind of unhinged.  Not only does this place him squarely in the latter category of actors it also serves as rich fodder for legions of armchair psychologists.  

Which begs the question: how much of this was a conscious decision on Gibson's part and how much of it was casting to type?  This sort of chicken-and-the-egg speculation occurred to me back in 2010 when Gibson attempted to resuscitate his tarnished career by starring in Edge of Darkness, playing a character not dissimilar to "Mad" Max Rockatansky.

Before proceeding down this strange and deadly highway, here's the film's scruffy-looking trailer:

Back in the mid-Seventies visionary film-makers George Miller and Byron Kennedy came up with a concept for a dystopian future that was both dynamic and reasonably cheap to realize.  Fueled by cautionary headlines about peak oil, increased lawlessness on the road and Miller's own stint in an emergency crash ward, the concepts coalesced into one of the biggest domestic hits in Australian cinema and the perfect foundation for a new sci-fi franchise. 

Set in a future only "a few years from now", Max's world is clearly beginning to collapse into a quagmire of greed and chaos.  Fuel has grown increasingly scarce and roving gangs of motorcycle-driving lunatics are terrorizing pedestrians and motorists everywhere.  The only levee standing against this tide of anarchy is a nominal, understaffed, and possibly privatized highway police unit: the Main Force Patrol. 

Their star player is Max Rockatansky, who manages to put public enemy number two, the so-called Nightrider, out of commission in a brutal, high-speed game of vehicular chicken.  The pendulum of the plot then swings into the realm of revenge when the gang's defacto leader, The Toecutter, seeks payback for the death of the Nightrider.  After Max's worst nightmare is realized, he struggles to hold onto his veneer of civility and sanity. 

Despite the film's microscopic budget, the costumes, props and cars all help to sell the film's low-fi vibe.  The innovative and gutsy actions sequences never cease to amaze and I can't help but ponder how many non-unionized stunt workers were maimed while shooting this.  The vehicular mutilations that occur on screen during this film really defy description. 

The film's skid-row aesthetics really drive home the perception that society is both morally and financially bankrupt.  Mad Max is certainly the product of a long-gone era and the film's financial challenges add to its bizarre appeal. The soundtrack is completely over the top: soft and saccharine when Max is at home with his beloved wife and brassy and anthemic during the action scenes. 

Gibson himself was only twenty three when he made Mad Max but even at that young age he's completely self assured and has "star power" written all over him.  He plays Max as a pillar of the community with staunch beliefs, who only becomes corrupted when dire circumstance and the cruelty of EVIL MEN reluctantly casts him into the realm of anti-hero. 

His on-screen wife, played by Joanne Samuel, is both winsome and feisty.  She has a fantastic rapport with Gibson, making the film's inevitable denouement all the more painful.  Knowing that he's been cast as head freak amongst a spectrum of degenerate weirdos with names like "Mudguts" and "Bubba Zanetti", Hugh Keays-Byrne goes for broke as The Toecutter.  Every time he's on-screen he's appropriately off-kilter and quietly menacing. 

Again, there isn't a lot of cash up on-screen here but there are just so many odd, cock-eyed little moments to look out for it never fails to arrest my attention. The film is also tonally schizophrenic, veering drunkenly between scenes of roadside mayhem and moments of mundane bliss as Max and his family take off for an incongruous road trip to the country. 

Anyway you cut it, Mad Max is a very odd and unique little time capsule, the angry bastard child of Australia's emerging film industry and Grindhouse-style exploitation. 

Tilt: up.
There have been a few rare but memorable instances as a film fan when I've been watching an adaptation of some fantasy property and felt a rush of giddy excitement when I realize that the director has hit a home run. It happened watching Bryan Singe... read more