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Favorite Superhero Film of Summer… GO!

VS.

VS.

It’s an royal rumble! Marvel unleashed their A-team on DC’s caped crusader and the battle between who was the best rages on. Personally, I have liked all three of the blockbuster superhero films that have smashed their way into theaters this summer but I’m going to have to go with The Dark Knight Rises being my favorite. What can I say? I’m a Batman fan! Anyways, I hope everyone has loved the Anti-Film School’s July Superhero Takeover. There are a few more reviews on the way in these final days of the month so stay tuned. A review of Hellboy II: The Golden Army will be up tomorrow. In the meanwhile, let us know what you favorite was! Everyone has an opinion.

Serenity (2005)

by Craig Thomas

As Marvel’s The Avengers continues to break box office records and has received (almost) universal critical acclaim (see Samuel L. Jackson’s Twitter tirade against the NY Times film critic for one of the few exceptions), it’s amazing to think that it is only the director’s second big screen effort. It’s even more amazing when you discover three out of four of the shows he made for TV were cancelled and his big screen debut, despite widespread critical acclaim, failed to recoup its budget at the box office. That film was Serenity, and this is its story.

Serenity is the big screen adaptation of the much loved (and much cancelled) TV show, Firefly. Lasting a mere 14 episodes, shown at no particular time and in no particular order (the first episode was the last to air, three didn’t even make it that far) nevertheless found a home on DVD. If you’ve not seen the TV show, I would recommend watching it first (mainly because it’s awesome) but is in no way vital to understanding or thoroughly enjoying this film. Despite being an opportunity to tie things up after cancellation, it still manages the difficult task of successfully appealing to its hardcore fan-base as well as the casual viewer, making it both a vital part of the canon as well as a great stand-alone feature in its own right.

Simply put, it’s a sci-fi western. There is a lot of back story, including the destruction of the earth, the colonization of another solar system and a war of independence between the sinister central government and the pioneers on the frontier-esque outer planets, all of which is explained at the very beginning of the film so that a child could understand, literally.

We then move to a laboratory where Alliance scientists are performing experiments on River Tam (played by Summer Glau) who we learn has psychic abilities. She is rescued by her brother, Dr Simon Tam (played by Sean Maher). We are then introduced to the man brought to bring her (and the secrets she may have) back to the Alliance, a shadowy figure known as the Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mild-mannered killer with his own particular code of honour. Here the events are set in motion, which drive the rest of the film.

When we are introduced to Serenity for the first time, a Firefly-class spaceship to which River and Simon escape, we are taken on a four-minute, one shot tour and meet the ship’s ragamuffin crew as they prepare for the next job and try not to crash at the same time. There’s Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), the pilot, Wash (played by Alan Tudyk), second-in-command and Wash’s wife Zoe (played by Gina Torres), the gun-loving muscle-for-hire in the form of Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin), and the mechanic Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite), as well as Simon and River. During this one shot we get a feel for each of the characters and their relationship to Mal.

That’s a lot of characters to be sure, but this is very much (in the words of writer/director Joss Whedon) Mal’s story told through River’s eyes.

Being based on a TV show and having a director whose only experience is directing for TV, it does at times feel like a feature length episode. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing, giving a sense of continuity and familiarity that fans of the TV show will appreciate, but it will probably be more of an issue with newcomers.

The CGI effects are good, but do have a kind of homemade feel to them and have you wishing they could have spent a bit more money to make them seamless, but that is nitpicking in quite a major way. Even so, this is not a film that would benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema. That said, the epic battle scene in space is done very well and is very much for the big screen.

The script is excellent, being dramatic and moving, but never losing its sense of humour, even during the darkest moments. There’s more genuinely funny lines here than you find in most comedies which is not surprising given Whedon started his career writing for the TV sitcom Rosanne and such language has permeated his entire catalogue of work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Toy Story (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).

To a man (and woman) the performances are spot-on, which is no surprise to fans of the show. Yet special note should be made of performances by Nathan Fillion who has to play a much darker version of Mal than fan are used to, and Chiwetel Ejiofor whose brutal, yet never malicious character is truly one of science fictions great villains (think Hannibal Lecter killing out of duty rather than pleasure).

Unusually, the director’s commentary is also worthy of a mention. Forgoing the usual time-filling anecdotes about funny things that happened during filming, Whedon sticks almost entirely to the technical aspects. Camera angles, choice of lens, story structure and why some scenes were included and why others were cut are all covered (even the deleted scenes have commentary), providing an invaluable insight to the film-making process. Yet it is never dull, for Whedon is (like Kevin Smith of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma fame) a born raconteur.

If you are a fan of sci-fi or westerns then this is a film you must see. If you’re not a fan of either genre this is still a film you must see. Like all his best work, this is a film about characters, about people facing their demons (literally and metaphorically), but with fighting and explosions. Made on a relatively modest budget the team work wonders to create an enjoyable and engaging work and you can’t help but wonder how great it could have been with an Avengers-sized wad of cash.

Whilst it may be forever overshadowed by the success of Marvel’s The Avengers and the giant projects that should now inevitably fall into his lap, for many Whedonites this is the film against which everything else is measured, and rightly so.

Grade: A

Serenity is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Avengers (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Since May of 2008, Marvel has begun to hype their heavily anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers with little Easter egg hints in the origin stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. It has been a torturous journey for Marvel fans but we finally have the crown jewel of Marvel superhero offerings and I’m just going to be frank when I say that it kicks a whole bunch of ass. Clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours, The Avengers is one gigantic nerd money shot, not bogged down by any longwinded origin tale or story set-up. With The Avengers, director Joss Whedon, allows his superhero titans to let loose and show off what they are capable of. There is a whole bunch of flying, jumping, punching, shooting, smashing, destroying, hammer throwing, shield throwing, missile launching fun that will keep a smile plastered across your face and drool splattering onto your Thor t-shirt. Yet The Avengers is even more of a triumph because it is actually a really good movie. This isn’t a big empty excuse that stretched things to get all these do-gooders into the same movie, which is what I feared when I first heard about The Avengers.

The Avengers begins in a remote research facility where a powerful energy source and portal known as the Tesseract is currently being held. The Tesseract suddenly activates, allowing the exiled Norse god Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) to step through the portal and attack the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that are guarding it. Loki finds himself confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who attempts to stop Loki from making off with the Tesseract. In the process, Loki declares war on planet earth and announces that he is in control of a powerful alien army that is capable of wiping earth out. Running out of options, Fury and Russian agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Played by Scarlett Johansson) begin rounding up the exiled Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Played by Mark Ruffalo), weapons defense expert Tony Stark/Iron Man (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Loki’s brother and fellow Norse god Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth), the recently rediscovered super-soldier Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Played by Chris Evans), and kidnapped assassin Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Played by Jeremy Renner). The group forms a rickety alliance and begins trying to find a way to stop Loki and convince him not to attack earth but it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hiding a few secrets about the Tesseract of their own.

Every hero that makes up The Avengers team gets a classic moment that sent the audience members of the midnight showing I attended into a frenzy of cheering, whistling, hooting, and hollering. It helped when the sequences that were filmed in Cleveland blasted their way onto the screen, which really drove my audience wild. Every hero gets the opportunity to fight the other or team up to take on Loki’s relentless army of hideous aliens. A sequence where Iron Man and Captain America gang up on Thor is an earthshaking encounter as well as an aerial battle between Black Widow, The Hulk, and Thor. The Thor/Hulk brawl exceeded awesome when Hulk tries to lob Thor’s hammer at him but is unable to lift it. It is just as glorious as you might expect. The final battle almost exceeds words, each character getting a “HOLY SHIT!” moment that you will have to see to believe. Much has been made over the 3D in The Avengers, which was added in post production, many saying that it leaves a lot to be desired but I was actually impressed with it. Arrows fly out of the screen along with ruble, sparks, and more. Next to Avatar and Hugo, this is one of the movies that if you can see it in IMAX 3D, you should.

While the special effects will blow your mind, it’s Joss Whedon’s script that really sends The Avengers to the forefront of superhero movies. He catches us up on all four of the main heroes; so if you’re worrying about seeing the other films that have led up to this, don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to figure out what is going on with no problem at all. Whedon measures out every hero and gives him or her an equal amount of screen time so they can do their superhero thing. Mark Ruffalo is the newest member to this tights party and he smoothly settles in. He ends up being the best Bruce Banner/The Hulk of all the actors who have tried to tackle the role. Ruffalo is a poor soul who adds the grittiest emotion to the role (a scene where he discusses a suicide attempt will really stick with you), oozing with loneliness and longing for acceptance. Thor, Stark, and Rodgers are not far behind, as the three of them all have to come to terms with their outsider status. Rodgers tries to settle in at a time when the world may not even need him, Thor continues to act like a strutting brute, and Stark continues to act like a self-center brat. Hiddleston’s Loki proves to be a formidable foe for the dream team, a smirking baddie who can do quite a bit of damage on his own. I feared his character would be unable to carry the weight of the villain considering he wasn’t front and center in last summer’s Thor but he rises to the challenge and knocks it out of the park. The two characters that I would have liked to have seen more of and developed a bit further was Black Widow and Hawkeye, who only get fleeting hints at their past. You’ll forgive because Whedon is clearly trying to juggle a lot and pulling it off exceedingly well.

The Avengers does become its own worst enemy in a way. I found myself getting so caught up in the idea of the film (Four legendary superhero in ONE movie!) that some of the sci-fi chatter and story development ends up being overshadowed. When the heroes would sit down with Fury and discuss all the science behind the Tesseract, my mind would wander a bit from the story and I would become antsy for the next action sequence. It was clear that the entire theater was getting restless during these scenes and craving more explosions, rescues, brawls, and more. There is a flipside to this and it works in the film’s favor. Since I have seen the film, I have been itching to get back to the theater to see it again and invest myself more into the story. This isn’t to say that The Avengers is a difficult film to follow (it certainly isn’t) but the gimmick of spectacle outweighs the story every step of the way. But hey, what do you expect from a summer blockbuster?

Despite a few minor hiccups, The Avengers is still a must-see action extravaganza that will be one of the biggest films of the summer. It has everything you could want in a superhero movie and then even more that you didn’t even know that you wanted. The Avengers is Marvel’s best film to date and I fear almost every film they do in the wake of it will pale (unless of course it is another Avengers movie). The film has a strong script with applause worthy one-liners, pristine CGI (get a load of Hulk!!), devoted performances, and a strong patriotic spirit that leaves American soil and infects everyone around the world. Kicking the summer movie season off with a nuclear explosion, The Avengers will awaken the inner fanboy or girl in each and every one of us, even if you think there isn’t one to be found in you. A top-notch crowd pleaser of the highest order.

Grade: A 

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

by Steve Habrat

To say that you have no idea what you are in for in The Cabin in the Woods is a complete understatement. You can’t even fathom the twist that is waiting to be sprung on you half way through this monster of a horror movie. That, my friends, is something you need to be excited about. I’ve said it multiple times, horror has hit rock bottom, from countless remakes, sequels, and retreads, leaving us only a handful of notable films to celebrate. It is truly hard to believe that there is such a shocking lack of vision and creativity working in Hollywood. I can’t believe they are paid millions to repackage and resell recycled garbage that we have already seen before and much better at that. The Cabin in the Woods lays waste to that approach; at first giving us the same weary old setup and then suddenly launching a shock and awe campaign that you will be truly unprepared for. It’s the first real crowd pleaser horror movie to come around in a long time, one that demands you see it in a packed house with tons of other unsuspecting viewers. You will be in for one wild night at the movies.

The Cabin in the Woods follows five college students, virgin Dana (Played by Kristen Connolly), slutty Jules (Played by Anna Hutchison), athletic Curt (Played by Chris Hemsworth), polite Holden (Played by Jesse Williams), and stoner Marty (Played by Fran Kranz), who head to an isolated cabin in the woods for a weekend of debauchery. After exploring the eerie basement, the group finds a worn out diary that they proceed to read from, conjuring up a bloodthirsty force in the woods that slowly descends upon the cabin. Meanwhile, a strange organization watches the kids from hidden cameras placed strategically around the cabin. It turns out that this organization has an agenda all their own and they are hiding a horrifying secret that threatens the world.

Considered a “loving hate letter” to horror by its director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods adoringly tips its hat to the classics every chance it gets. Keep an eye out for a hilarious nod to Evil Dead II, a siege on the cabin that is evocative of Night of the Living Dead, and a sequence that would have felt right at home in the calmer moments of the original Friday the 13th. It also helps that the early premise is loosely based on the original 1981 The Evil Dead.  When the twist is revealed, The Cabin in the Woods evolves into a new breed of horror movie that embraces every single subgenre you can possibly think of. I hesitate to say anymore about it other than it does go for broke and it comes up a winner because of it. Fans of the genre will be left beside themselves and at times it was almost overload, so much to take in that you will be flirting with heading back to the theater to experience it again. It’s absolutely exhilarating.

The Cabin in the Woods does have a talented cast behind the wheel, not a weak link in the bunch and then springing a surprise guest on us in the final moments. I loved Chris Hemsworth as the jock Curt, the overly confident hero who uses his strength in some of the most hysterical ways possible. Wait for the scene where he comes face to face with a zombie girl. Fran Kranz also shines as the squinty-eyed stoner Marty who begins to suspect there is more going on than meets the eye. And then we have Richard Jenkins as Steve Hadley and Bradley Whitford as Richard Sitterson, who are members of the mysterious organization who steal every scene they are in. A good majority of the laughs come from their end, especially in a gambling sequence and in their deadpan observations while they watch the kids.

My one minor complaint with The Cabin in the Woods is that I wished it had been scarier than it turned out to be. Sure, it is loaded with jump scares that will have the easy targets filling the jeans, but I wish it had really freaked me out. The audience I saw the film with had a ball with the fake out scares, gasping every time that music blasted over the speakers. I did enjoy the campy melody that The Cabin in the Woods carries, right down to the self-aware chucklers like “We should split up!” In fact, the film is often times more of a comedy than it is a horror movie, but I think that is precisely the point of The Cabin in the Woods. Nothing really scares us anymore, never sending us home from the theater with a handful of sleepless nights. The Cabin in the Woods points out that horror isn’t just failing in America, but is crumbling all over the world, and simply not doing the job that it is responsible for.

The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be a blood soaked, anything goes party that takes absolutely no prisoners. It opts to wipe all the prisoners it could take off the map and then firebomb the map. As an evaluation of the sorry state of horror, it is spot on and leaves you itching to see more horror films like it. In a way it gives horror fans hope, that there is still some individuals out there in the industry who posses creativity and will take a few risks. It baffles me why the film has been shelved for so long and why the studio was so iffy about it. Well written, directed, acted, and featuring the mother of all horror movie finales, The Cabin in the Woods is an adrenaline shot jabbed right into the feeble heart of the horror genre.

Grade: A

Another trailer that needs to be seen…

Hey readers,

For those who don’t know me, I am a huge comic book fan (Batman is my favorite and yes, I am beyond excited for The Dark Knight Rises) and many of you know that The Avengers hits theaters this May. The Avengers filmed major action sequences in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, which is just a short little drive from me (less than a half hour). I went downtown to check out some of the filming and I have to say, The Avengers looks mighty impressive. Here is the new full length trailer for the superhero epic that features Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America! You’ll watch it twice. Trust me!

-Steve

The Avengers hits theaters May 4th.