by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.
Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.
Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.
As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.
The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.
With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.
by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven unveiled RoboCop, a satirical science fiction blockbuster that has been long celebrated by critics and audiences as a classic of the genre. Despite offering gruesome thrills and unrelenting action, this beloved classic has even earned recognition from the prestigious Criterion Collection and was released by the arthouse company on laserdisc and DVD a few years back. It should come as no surprise that a remake of RoboCop was rumored for many years—unsurprisingly, really, considering that Hollywood is running on fumes in the creativity department. After almost ten years of development, America finally has Brazilian director José Padilha’s RoboCop, a buffed and bloodless affair that features a staggering A-list cast. With names like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackie Earle Haley filling up the cast list, you’d think that there must be something solid to this blatantly unnecessary remake of a classic. Truthfully, RoboCop 2014 isn’t nearly as bad as you may have expected it to be. It’s far from empty headed and the veteran performances carry plenty of weight, but the film is so concerned with making an intelligent statement that the film nearly forgets to have any fun or offer any adrenaline-pumping set pieces. It also makes the grave mistake of handing over the title role to Joel Kinnaman, a newcomer that works hard but never fully earns our sympathy or respect.
RoboCop picks up in Detroit, 2029, with police officer Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner, Jack Lewis (played by Michael K. Williams), doing some dangerous undercover work in an attempt to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (played by Patrick Garrow). In their investigation, they begin to discover that Vallon may have ties to several officers in the Detroit police department. After a nasty confrontation between the undercover officers and Vallon’s men, Jack is left severely wounded and clinging to life. Alex manages to make it through the confrontation unscathed, but Vallon’s men soon track him down and implant an explosive device inside his car. While enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife, Clara (played by Abbie Cornish), and his young son, David, the device is triggered, leaving Alex with fourth degree burns covering his body. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the United States is waging war with the help of robotic soldiers and hulking droids created by OmniCorp. On American soil, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellers (played by Michael Keaton) is pushing to have these robots and droids patrol American streets, but he is met with resistance from Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (played by Zach Grenier), who claims that the robots and droids lack human emotion. Desperate to make his vision a reality, Sellers enlists the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman) to meld man with machine. After a lengthy search for a proper candidate, Sellers and Norton settle on Alex for the human/robot program, and in the process create a revolutionary new figure of justice—RoboCop.
Where most blockbusters today attempt to mask their lack of intelligence with countless CGI battles, gunfights, fistfights, and miles of devastation, RoboCop begins with heady debates about the use of robots and droids in the thick of war. The battle rages on a nightly news program called The Novak Element, hosted by Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson). In this sequence, we are treated to some tense urban action sprinkled in between Novak’s bug-eyed stare and his questioning of America’s “robophobia.” Points are made on both sides of the issue, bullets fly, bombs explode, and things seem to be getting off to a strong start even before the credits have rolled. Padilha and his crew are letting us know that they are well aware that the original RoboCop was interested in smarts just as much as it was interested in spilling blood, and you have to commend them for acknowledging this. However, as the seconds tick by in RoboCop 2014, it becomes increasingly clear that the filmmakers seem reluctant to have a little fun. There is a brief rush of giddy excitement when Alex steps into a training session in an abandoned warehouse, but the action feels square and the approach is uninspired as Jackie Earle Hayle’s Rick Maddox taunts the stomping RoboAlex by calling him “Tin Man.” I’m sad to report that the action rarely picks up from here, only really cutting loose during the final showdown in the OmniCorp lobby.
While the action may not exactly take your breath away, a good majority of the performances will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Perhaps the most mediocre of the bunch is Kinnaman, who fails do anything interesting with his screen time. He’s the typical macho cop/mushy family man in the early scenes, and when he’s sentenced to his new RoboArmor, he’s only sporadically pathetic as he realizes that he will never have a normal life again. Still, he can droop his mouth into a proper frown as he aims his machine gun and fires at the bad guys, which is always an action-movie plus. The ever-welcome Oldman is the top dog here as Dennett, the doctor tasked with placing the injured cop inside a machine. Oldman earns more sympathy when he is forced to switch off Alex’s emotions than the actual RoboHero does. Keaton nails his role as Sellers, the ruthless OmniCorp CEO who may not be as upstanding as he seems. Jackie Earle Hayley does a fine job as Maddox considering that the screenwriters have handed him the film’s worst dialogue. Strapped inside his exoskeleton, he looks like something out of Elysium, but he still finds a groove as a certified badass. Jackson is his usual shouting self as Pat Novak, the nightly news host who speaks directly to the audience and acts as a pale moderator to all the heated debates. Abbie Cornish rounds out the main cast as Alex’s suffering wife, Clara, who slowly regrets allowing the suits of OmniCorp to slap her husband inside that black armor.
Undoubtedly the most controversial change in RoboCop 2014 is the PG-13 violence that the studio opted for rather than the gruesome R-rated approach Verhoeven took to the original. Throughout it’s nearly two-hour run time, there is barely a speck of blood, which makes it clear that Columbia intends to turn this new RoboCop into a sanitized series that will sell just as many toys as it does tickets. Despite the lack of bloodshed and carnage, Padilha’s RoboCop is still a well-paced story that builds quite nicely. The only time that the film really drops the ball is with Vallon and his villainous shenanigans. He is quickly bumped off and forgotten so that Padilha can make room for bigger and badder tricks. It also wouldn’t have hurt to include villains that are a bit more colorful than what we are left with. Overall, you can’t fault RoboCop 2014 for attempting to be much more than a mind numbing, popcorn-muncher of a film, but this constant strain to be saying something prevents the audience from receiving the action jolt they are craving. Maybe a different lead would have helped, too. Oh well, as far as remakes go, it could have been much, much worse.
Django Unchained (2012)
After what felt like an eternity (just slightly under four months, actually), Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD. If you didn’t see my Top 10 Films of 2012 list, then you didn’t know that this ultra-violent and ultra-entertaining spaghetti western was my pick for the best film of last year. Funny, action packed, stunningly well-written, and unflinching, Django Unchained also features some of the best performances from last year (wait until you see Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio). The Blu-ray isn’t particularly bursting with features, however, there is a documentary called Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained, a look at the costume designs from Sharen Davis, and a feature called Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained. If you’re a fan of cinema or a Tarantino nut, you might want to high tail it over to Best Buy to pick up their special edition that comes in some nifty packaging that will look mighty cool next to your Tarantino XX collection. So, if you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Django Unchained, click here, and if you’re curious why I picked it as the best film of 2012, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
After the massive success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the hype around Quentin Tarantino was through the roof. He put a creative spin on the gangster movie with Reservoir Dogs, made Pulp Fiction, which was labeled a modern day masterpiece, and then turned around and nabbed a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it. Everyone was wondering what this exploitation-obsessed film guru would do next. Rather than writing another original screenplay, Tarantino chose to pen an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. Reworking the title as Jackie Brown and swapping the heroine’s race from white to black, Tarantino makes a modern day blaxploitation film that actually turns out to be his most mature work in his catalogue. Leaving behind the countless pop culture references and dialing back on the knee-jerk violence, Jackie Brown is a slow moving drama that lacks the instantly iconic characters and razor sharp humor that peppered his first two films. In true Tarantino fashion, he has gathered an ensemble cast and even found a way to revitalize the careers of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and B-movie actor Robert Forster, who went on to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role. Despite being more mature, Jackie Brown does sag a little under its weight and lengthy run time, but I’ll be damned if Tarantino doesn’t put up a fight to keep the film off the ground.
Jackie Brown (Played by Pam Grier) is a beautiful but lonely flight attendant for a small Mexican airline called Cabalas Airlines. On the side, Jackie, whose career has hit a snag, smuggles money from Mexico to the United States for charismatic gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out that Ordell is under surveillance by the ATF. After one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Played by Chris Tucker), is arrested, Ordell visits bail bondsman Max Cherry (Played by Robert Forster) and arranges for a $10,000 bail to spring Livingston out of fear that he may become an informant. It turns out that Livingston already blabbed to ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Played by Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Played by Michael Bowen) while in custody and the two men intercept Jackie while she is arriving at the airport. Fearing that Jackie may also become an informant, Ordell once again visits Max and arranges her bail. After meeting Jackie, the mild mannered Max begins developing feelings for the tough flight attendant. Meanwhile, Ordell plans to murder Jackie but instead, she negotiates a deal to smuggle $550,000 of Ordell’s money out of Mexico, enough cash for him to retire. Ordell agrees, unaware that Jackie may be helping out the ATF agents. To make sure he ends up with the money, Ordell hires a stoner beach bunny named Melanie Ralston (Played by Bridget Fonda) and former cellmate Louis Gara (Played by Robert DeNiro) to help out with the job. With this much money involved, all the thugs begin devising way to make off with the cash for themselves but Jackie has other plans.
At two and a half hours, Jackie Brown certainly has its fair share of backstabbing, double crosses, and scheming going on. While it seemed appropriate in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown seems to just be rambling on and sometimes not in a good way. The first hour of the film is fun, a little sexy, and funny in spurts, but after a while, I was left wishing that Tarantino would pop the cork on crazy and get the party started. He never really does and it is slightly disappointing. However, you can’t really blame Tarantino for toning it down a bit after his rambunctious behavior in Pulp Fiction (Who could forget the Gimp?). And then there is the trademark dialogue, something we really look forward to when going into his movies. In Jackie Brown, you feel as though Tarantino is blending his dialogue with Leonard’s and the results are mixed. There are a few funny lines here and there and only a few moments where it is truly memorable, but none of it comes close to what was in his first two films. Despite lacking the shock and crazy of his first two films, Jackie Brown does prove that Tarantino can pile on the emotion and really hook us with a touching love story. You really root for the romance between Jackie and Max, a love that is really the heart and soul of the movie. It is like Tarantino revealing his softer side, something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy too much (just watch an interview with him). Dare I say that Jackie Brown makes us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside?
If the bloated plot of Jackie Brown begins to wear on you, you may find some relief in the performances, mostly the ones from Grier and Forster. Grier is in fine form as the sensitive but fierce Jackie, one tough mama who doesn’t put up with any of the torment dished out by Ordell. Age seems to be holding Grier back from really kicking ass and taking names but she is as sharp as a tack when it comes to staying one step ahead of everyone but Max. Forster is measured, gentle, and subtle as Max Cherry, the kindly bail bondsman who develops a crush on the curvy Jackie. You can’t help but love him as he jams out to crooning R&B classics in his car, music he heard from our badass heroine. Together, the form an unlikely romance but I suppose that opposites attract. Plus, you feel like Max really deserves this romance. Jackson tones down the intensity he brought to Pulp Fiction and brings a menacing cool to Ordell. Watching him manipulate the thugs around him will have your knuckles whitening, especially when he shows up at Jackie’s apartment to settle some business. DeNiro is quiet fun as the loose cannon Louis, a slouchy thug who never can resist the bong in front of him. He gets some great moments with Fonda’s Melanie, a perpetually stoned and horny beach bunny who is always taking too long to get ready. Keaton is on point as the hotshot ATF agent who is always chewing on a piece of gum. We also get a funny and jumpy performance from the rarely seen but always welcome Chris Tucker as Livingston. Tucker isn’t here long but you’ll certainly remember his character.
Even if things are a little too drawn out, Jackie Brown still manages to entertain you even in its slower moments. I really enjoyed the scenes where Louis and Ordell sat around and discussed firearms over beer and weed as Melanie rolls her eyes in boredom. These scenes crackled with Tarantino’s punchy dialogue and humor, his usual trademarks. I also enjoyed the way Tarantino laid out the climax of the film, dropping all of his characters into a busy shopping mall and letting them try to outsmart each other while the money bops around in a shopping bag. Then there is the final confrontation, which does flirt with Tarantino’s unpredictable flashes of violence and bloodshed. Overall, I do like Jackie Brown and I have to say that I did fall head over heels for Grier and Forster. I also love the idea that the film is a big fat valentine to Grier and her feisty roles from years past. Yet as a tribute to blaxploitation cinema, Jackie Brown is a little clunky. It seems to lack the sass of the blaxploitation subgenre. I give Tarantino credit for breaking away from his usual formula but Jackie Brown left me starving for his crazy side.
Jackie Brown is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.
by Steve Habrat
Fresh off the success of the indie smash Reservoir Dogs and the vibrant script for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with a film that is widely considered the best film in his catalogue. To this day, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a funky fresh blast of hilarious pop culture small talk and teeth-rattling violence. Reservoir Dogs certainly introduced the world to the Tarantino style of filmmaking but Pulp Fiction is the film that opened the copycat floodgates. Drawing inspiration from pulp magazines that dominated from the late 1800s until the 1950s, Pulp Fiction is certainly a film that is worthy of all the praise that is still handed to it. It holds up to multiple viewings, the jokes land every single time, it finds John Travolta giving one of the best performances of his career, it features dialogue that still makes my head spin with delight, and it still makes me jump when old Marvin gets his noggin blown to pieces. To this day, I still find myself rediscovering little moments that I have missed or forgotten about as the years pass. Yet what makes the film so great is the way that Tarantino irons out his characters, letting them really open up to the viewer and becoming almost like long lost friends. You genuinely feel like you are hanging out at Jack Rabbit Slims with these cats. And then there is the narrative, a jumbled collection of puzzle pieces that are reluctant to reveal themselves fully to us.
Pulp Fiction introduces us to a number of thugs, lowlifes, and small time crooks, who all collide at some point in the two and a half hours it is on the screen. We meet two hitmen, Vincent Vega (Played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are sent by booming mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Played by Ving Rhames) to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a trio of low-level crooks. These two hitmen meet an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge (Played by Bruce Willis), who has a price on his head after he refuses to throw a fight that Marsellus Wallace payed him to throw, a duo of jittery thieves who go by the named Pumpkin (Played by Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Played by Amanda Plummer), the junkie wife of Marsellus, Mia Wallace (Played by Uma Thurman), a hot shot problem solver named Winston Wolf (Played by Harvey Kietel), and three sadistic redneck freaks, Zed (Played by Peter Greene), Maynard (Played by Duane Whitaker), and the Gimp (Played by Stephen Hibbert), who enjoy kidnapping strangers and then sodomizing them. What plays out is a number of gruesome showdowns, hilarious exchanges, and plenty of drooling over a glowing briefcase.
While every single moment of Pulp Fiction is juicy, Tarantino spins a web of moments that are consistently in competition with one another. Ask anyone who has seen the film to name their favorite moment for you and I promise that everyone will answer differently. There is the dance number in Jack Rabbit Slims, where Thurman and Travolta boogie down to win a twist trophy (Travolta still has the moves). There is the adrenaline shot to the heart to revive the overdosing Thurman that will have you watching through cracked fingers. We also have the sequence where Willis and Rhames stumble upon a trio of sodomizing maniacs, only to fight back with a samurai sword. Or how about the scene where poor Marvin “accidentally” gets shot in the head as Jules and Vincent debate a miracle that just happened moments earlier? While connecting the plot points is a blast, it’s the thoughtful sequences connecting everything together that are ultimately more fun to talk about. Personally, my favorite moment is the sequence where Vince and Mia chow down at Jack Rabbit Slims, talking about awkward pauses on dates, debating how good a five dollar milkshake is, evaluating Buddy Holly on his skills as a waiter, and finally getting up to participate in the twist competition. And I just love Thurman as she draws that dotted line square. It’s a pop culture loaded scene that really springs to life. Plus, it comes with a Vanilla Coke!
As always, I have to discuss the performances, which are the heart and soul of Pulp Fiction. Everyone just loves Jackson’s Bible quoting hitman Jules, a real spitfire with a jheri curl. His exchanges with Travolta’s drawling Vincent Vega will have you chuckling through the first half hour or so of the film. Travolta, meanwhile, hasn’t felt this alive in a role since Grease. In a way, you almost feel like Travolta was born to play the role of Vince and I must say that he really disappears into the character, a rarity for Mr. Travolta. And then there is Rhames as Marsellus Wallace, the furious mob boss who will be your friend one minute and your worst enemy the next. Willis is the underdog here as the scrappy boxer who will stop at nothing to get his father’s prized watch back even if it means risking his life. The sequence where he comes up against the three sodomizing devils will really leave a mark. Thurman shows up only a half hour but she becomes the face of Pulp Fiction. She is crazy, sexy, cool as she calls Vince “Daddy-O” and shouts “I say goddamn. Goddamn!” while powdering her nose. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are hysterical as two thieves who think they’re tough but quickly realize they are nothing when put up against Jules and Vincent. Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino round out the cast later in the film as two problem solvers trying to help out our two lovable and blood drenched hitmen. Christopher Walken also gets a very fine cameo but the less you know about him, the funnier it is.
As Pulp Fiction coasts along on the surf guitars that rumble over the soundtrack, you begin to realize that the film is all about conversations. Sure, all of these conversations are basically references to other crime flicks and forgotten exploitation cinema but they all just seem so effortless. It is dialogue that just rolls off the tongue and will have you and your buddies quoting it for days. I suppose that you could describe the overall big picture here as effortless and suave. It never seems to be trying too hard and yet it is maddeningly cool. No character seems like they are just taking up space and there is no one scene that feels like it is dragging on too long. The first time I saw the film, I was a bit thrown off with Butch’s sequence in the middle of the film but this stretch has really grown on me after seeing the film as many times as I have over the years. I also love the way Tarantino really allows the soundtrack to shine. You can just visualize Tarantino at a jukebox sorting through these surf rock ditties and tapping his toes along to the beat. Overall, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Pulp Fiction rounds the home stretch and reveals how all of these characters are connected. You’ll glow as Tarantino skips through sleaze land and pays tribute to all of his interests in some way, shape, or form. Believe me when I say you will fall in love with Pulp Fiction, a hyperactive and playful masterpiece that still manages to be one step ahead of all the copycats. Oh, and feel free to leave your thoughts about what is in that mysterious suitcase.
Pulp Fiction is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Even though Quentin Tarantino did not direct the 1993 romantic thriller True Romance, one would swear that it was made by the vigorous film buff. Directed by the late Tony Scott and written by Mr. Tarantino, True Romance is a fast, funny, gory, and sexy tale about gangsters, drugs, pimps, comic books, Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and some of the strangest characters you are ever likely to see in a motion picture. Hot of the success of 1992’s indie Reservoir Dogs and made just before 1994’s star-studded Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s script is a fiery blast of nerdy dialogue and fizzy romance matched up with an all-star cast (Christian Slater! Patricia Arquette! Samuel L. Jackson! Dennis Hopper! Brad Pitt! Christopher Walken! Val Kilmer! Gary Oldman!), who all give insanely memorable performances. You can feel Tarantino’s energy humming through the entire project but it’s Scott’s edgy and flashy directorial style that makes this nearly two hour film seem like it is only about a half-hour long. Seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly this film moves and how short it actually felt. While True Romance is always fun and exciting, the film sadly looses a little steam near the climax. Maybe I was just fatigued from the Scott’s hyperactive style and Tarantino’s fast paced film-referencing conversations that led up to the final confrontation. I mean, did you ever think there would be a film that references both The Streefighter and Terrence Malick’s Badlands?
True Romance introduces us to comic book store clerk Clarence (Played by Christian Slater), a nerdy loner who attends a kung fu triple feature on his birth. While at the movies, he crosses paths with a beautiful blonde named Alabama (Played by Patricia Arquette). The two hit it off instantly over pie and conversations about Elvis, comic books, and kung fu. After a night of steamy passion, Alabama reveals that she was a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present but that she has fallen madly in love with him. The two marry and Clarence decides that he is going to seek out Alabama’s pimp, Drexel (Played by Gary Oldman), and let him know that his blonde bombshell is quitting. This meeting between Clarence and Drexel doesn’t go according to plan and Clarance ends up killing Drexel and accidentally leaving with a bag of stolen cocaine. Unsure what to do, Clarance seeks out the help of his estranged father, Clifford (Played by Dennis Hopper), and plans to flee to California. Hot on Clarence and Alabama’s trail is a gangster Vincenzo Coccoti (Played by Christopher Walken) and his sadistic enforcer Virgil (Played by James Gandolfini). Once they arrive in California and hook up with Clarence’s buddies Dick Ritchie (Played by Michael Rapaport) and Floyd (Played by Brad Pitt), things really get dangerous.
True Romance is loaded with juicy Tarantino moments, the ones where characters sit down to have a completely quotable conversation. You will be fighting off a grin during a diner conversation between Slater’s Clarence and Arquette’s Alabama. Comic geeks will swoon when Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop where he works and they share a kiss over the first issue of Spider-Man. Fear not, folks, the great chatty moments don’t stop there. There is a hilarious scene where Hopper and Walken fire up cigarettes and have a war of words before one of them is staring down the barrel of a gun. And we can’t forget any dazed zinger that comes from Pitt’s Floyd. For as talky as True Romance gets, Tarantino and Scott deliver some seriously nasty moments of violence. The showdown between Drexel and Clarence will get the blood pumping something fierce with all its claustrophobic brutality while Alabama receives a vicious beating from Virgil, as he demands to know where the big bag of cocaine is hidden. And then there is the strangely beautiful gunfight at the end that has three groups going toe to toe as feathers and cocaine fly through the air.
True Romance may be a whirlwind of geeky chats and stomach churning violence, but it would be nothing without the oddball performances from its all-star cast. Slater is a knockout as Clarence, a comic and B-movie geek who finally gets the girl. His opening moments with Arquette are out of this world as they get to know each other over popcorn, pie, and Sonny Chiba. Arquette as a ray of sunshine with a violent streak, moved to tears when Clarence kills someone for her. Oldman gives a jaw-dropping performance as Drexel, the dread-locked pimp who chows down of Chinese while taking in The Mack. He taunts Clarence by calling him a “regular Charlie Bronson!” Walken gets a fine cameo as a soft-spoken gangster who cackles when Hooper insults him for his Sicilian background. It’s a small role, borderline cameo, but Walken nails it like he is the star of the show. Hooper leaves crazy on the shelf as Clarence’s father, a washed up ex cop who seems to be living a lonely existence with his dog in a rundown trailer. Pitt is absolutely hilarious as Floyd, a stoner rooted to the living room couch. He’s hysterical when he asks a handful of gangsters if they want to get high. Rapaport is his usual restless self as Dick Ritchie, an aspiring actor who is consistently exasperated with Floyd. And then there is Val Kilmer as Elvis, an apparition that appears and whispers words of encouragement to Clarence.
If you’re a cinema buff or a comic book fan, True Romance should be essential viewing for you. It’s consistently clever, retro, funny, pulpy, and heart pounding all while bopping along to Hans Zimmer’s score that pays tribute to Malick’s Badlands. When the film swaps the snowy streets of Detroit for the sun-kissed streets of California, the film looses some of the momentum it had gathered early on. The end showdown is visually thrilling and certainly a bloody, gory show, but the viewer is suffering burn out from the white-knuckle pace of the rest of the film to really appreciate it. Still, its worth catching True Romance simply to see this cast really let their crazy sides fly and it’s the true definition of entertaining. It’s also worth it to catch Pitt in a hilarious haze of marijuana smoke and lukewarm beers. Overall, its hard not to wonder what Tarantino would have done with the film had he directed it but Scott shapes all the action into a banshee of a thrill ride. Just make sure you keep a B-movie history book close by and you brush up on your comic knowledge. It will lead to a deeper appreciation of the film.
True Romance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Sin City tried to be funny and refused to take any of its characters seriously. Don’t want to? Yeah, I don’t blame you. Director Frank Miller (Yes, the comic book writer) seems to not be able to shake the visual approach of his 2005 film Sin City (Remember, he co-directed Sin City with Robert Rodriguez) and carries the curious look over to The Spirit, an overly campy and convoluted superhero film based off the comic strip by Will Eisner. Miller so desperately wanted to film a moving comic strip that he pays absolutely no attention to the storyline or the characters and instead obsessively pours over the visual look of his film. The Spirit is a visual knockout, that I can say, but the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired. The storyline is monotonous and at times almost unintelligible and the hero is so dull that you may find yourself forgetting to root for him. Miller pits this square against the Octopus, a villain that goes through more wardrobe changes in this film than any pop singer at a concert. Stir in a handful of hot babes and you have an over seasoned recipe for disaster.
The Spirit takes us to Central City and introduces us to Denny Colt (Played by Gabriel Macht), an undead police officer who prowls the streets of the city as the Spirit, a masked crime fighter/detective. The Spirit receives a phone call one evening from Detective Sussman (Played by Dan Gerrity) about something strange going on down by an old shipwreck on the outskirts of Central City. The Spirit makes his way to the shipwreck where he bumps in to a femme fatale from his past, Sand Saref (Played by Eva Mendes), who is trying to make off with two mysterious crates. Saref is foiled by the Spirit’s arch nemesis the Octopus (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), a villain in one awful costume after another. After gunning down Sussman and forcing Saref to leave one of the crates behind, the Octopus claims it for himself and calls in his sidekick Silken Floss (Played by Scarlett Johansson) and his army of cloned henchmen (All played by Louis Lombardi). The Spirit confronts the Octopus and the two engage in a massive brawl that ends with the Octopus telling the Spirit that they share a connection. As the Spirit investigates Sand Saref’s reemergence in Central City and his mysterious connection to the Octopus, the Spirit discovers that the Octopus is on a quest for immortality, a quest that could threaten the entire city.
Shallow right from the beginning, Miller never allows us to really get to know Denny Colt, the man behind the fedora and mask. He sprints around rooftops in all black with a fluttering red tie as he explains to us in a voiceover that he is “in love with his city,” she always “provides” for him, and that his “city screams.” As the Spirit, Denny can take quite a bit of punishment because he is, well, a spirit. He spends most of the film outrunning an otherworldly Angel of Death called Lorelei (Played by Jaime King), who coaxes him into the afterlife where he belongs. All of this is supposed to count as character development throughout The Spirit but it is mostly there to lead to one trippy sequence after another. A scene where the Spirit drifts through an afterlife hallucination sure does radiate vision that would have looked marvelous in a comic book but just seems pointless on the big screen. In fact, almost everything in The Spirit is meaningless and silly, almost like Miller just smashed a bunch of images together that he thought would look great. This is even more apparent in the Octopus, who dressed up in one ridiculous costume after another as he paces around plotting how to kill the Spirit. He is just bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, no explanation required.
Then there is the humor and tongue and cheek antics that further make The Spirit the eye-rolling experience that it is. It tries to wink at us even thought it wants you to think that it is really cool. Take things seriously but not too seriously, says Miller! Miller blends together slang from the 1940’s with modern day technology in an effort to really give his universe some pizzazz but you are left wondering why he didn’t just stick to the 40’s all together. The performances by everyone involved seem a bit confused, diffident, or disinterested, no one daring to do the unthinkable and stand out. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been hard considering the lifeless script that Miller provides. The driest is without quest Macht as Denny Colt/The Spirit, who appears to be sleepwalking through the entire film. When he is pitted against Jackson’s Octopus, he practically disappears from the frame but not because Jackson is particularly good, just that he holds the screen better than Macht. Jackson, meanwhile, barks through dialogue like “toilets are always funny” as he smashes the Spirit over the head with a porcelain throne. He is more comical than sinister. The ladies are all there to be sexy, mostly Mendes who gets to shed her clothes in one scene and show off her backside, a scene just to drive fanboys wild. I hate to break it to Miller but this still does nothing to liven things up. Then there is Lombardi as the sea of cloned henchmen who are more irritating than funny like they are supposed to be.
It really became a chore to not nod off while watching The Spirit and I usually never have that problem. This film is like watching glowing white blood dry (trust me, there is glowing white blood in The Spirit). There is nothing in the way of remarkable action, no character worth giving a damn about, and a plot line that was so disjointed and confusing that I couldn’t get swept up in the story. Maybe if you zapped the dialogue out of the film and played a collection of songs over the images, it would make for one hell of a music video (it is just a suggestion). It is obvious that if Miller had a good script, he could make something that would really be a must-see but The Spirit is just not that film. I’d be interested to see if he ever returns to filmmaking but let’s hope he doesn’t write it. Sadly, it feels like Miller ripped off his own material and we are all left wishing that he would have made Sin City 2. Overall, if you insist on watching The Spirit, make sure you down an energy drink, munch on plenty of sugary candy, and maybe even have a pot of coffee on hand. You are going to need it if you are going to get through this dud. I guess the Spirit should have stuck to haunting the pages of comic books.
The Spirit is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
The family who argues together saves the world together in director Brad Bird’s 2004 superhero adventure The Incredibles. One of the most action packed Pixar offerings, The Incredibles is a zippy homage to comic books while also pulling back the curtain on the suburban family and allowing us to see what makes every member of the All-American family tick. While The Incredibles, which was also written by Bird, borrows heavily from the critically acclaimed comic book Watchmen, Bird and the Pixar team tweak the storyline is multiple places, watering Watchmen’s extremely complex storyline down, and allowing the focus to be much more intimate. The results are dazzling with snappy jokes, gripping action, and one perfectly timed joke after another. The Incredibles is also a much more adult film, running two hours with multiple suggestive moments and really earning its PG rating. This is far from the warm and cuddly offerings that Pixar is famous for, especially when we glance back at the films that came before The Incredibles. This is the film that really showed the world the emotional punches that Pixar could throw at audiences all while keeping them wildly entertained and mesmerized.
The Incredibles ushers us into Metroville, where multiple superheroes fly through the sky and save the innocent civilians from destructive foes looking to level the city. We meet Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Voiced by Holly Hunter), and his best buddy Lucius Best/Frozone (Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), all who team up together to rid the city of scum. After the government grows weary of all the collateral damage caused by the “Supers”, they put into place the “Supers Relocation Program”, which forces “Supers” to retire their crime fighting ways and fit in with the rest of society. Bob and Helen soon retreat to the suburbs and Bob takes a job at an insurance agency while Helen raises their three children, Dash (Voiced by Spencer Fox), Violet (Voiced by Sarah Vowell), and the toddler Jack-Jack. Bob, who longs to relive his superhero days, is bored with white-collar conformity and grows more and more frustrated with each passing day. After loosing his temper at his job and getting fired, Bob finds himself approached by the mysterious Mirage (Voiced by Elizabeth Pena), who asks Bob to stop a deadly rogue robot on a remote island. Mirage promises Bob that if he can successfully destroy the robot, he will receive a reward. Bob defeats the robot and he soon begins getting other missions from Mirage, all while leaving Helen in the dark about his new job. Bob soon learns that these missions are being controlled by Syndrome (Voiced by Jason Lee), a super-villain who masterminds countless destructive weapons and has a plan that will wipe the retired superheroes off the planet.
At just under two hours, The Incredibles is given room to really develop its characters to the fullest extent possible, paving the way for weighty superhero films that followed in its wake (the next year would see Batman Begins hit theaters, which would set the bar even higher for the superhero genre). We get to see the day-to-day of each Parr family member, seeing what secrets they hide and how they deal with having extraordinary powers while living ordinary lives. Bob has to take mental torment from his boss, each little mental shove just bringing Bob closer to tossing him around like a ragdoll. Violet is an outcast at her high school, hiding behind thick black bangs and practically fainting at the sight of her crush. When he notices her, she activates her power to turn invisible. The troublemaking whippersnapper Dash enjoys placing tacks on his teacher’s chair, using his lightning fast speed to keep the teacher scratching his bald head over how Dash is pulling the prank off. Helen, who acts as the housewife glue of the family, wears a happy face as she spoons meatloaf and green beans onto her family’s dinner plates. Meanwhile, Bob rounds up Lucius for “bowling night”, which really consists of the duo sitting in a car listening to a police scanner and chatting about the good old days. Lucius, now married, tries to keep his wife happy by not ruining special meals, even while a robot pummels downtown Metroville. Each hero is given their conformist demons and they grapple with how to tackle those demons, realizing that they really do need each other to work these issues out.
The supporting characters of The Incredibles are just as fun and hilarious as the first string. Bird thinks up a really nifty villain in Syndrome, who as a boy was Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan. Syndrome, whose real name is Buddy Pine, was always eager to help Mr. Incredible out even when Mr. Incredible would tell him to stay out of the way. Being wounded by his idol makes him all the more interesting and sinister when he is dishing out his payback to Mr. Incredible. Mirage is a character that is a bit underused but I did enjoy the way she would vacillate back and forth from evil to hero. I really enjoyed being kept in the dark over which side she would be aligned with next. The scene-stealer here is Edna Mode (Voiced by Brad Bird), an oriental fashion designer who comes up with the costumes worn by the “Supers”. A chic pint sized motor mouth, Edna is hysterical when explaining why she dislikes capes and recoiling from Mr. Incredible’s dated superhero get up. She really shines when she unveils a new line of outfits for the entire Parr clan. She also seems like she could be a villain in future Incredibles installments, seeming to get quite a bit of joy out of Bob and Helen’s rocky marriage.
You will be surprised to know that The Incredibles never feels like almost two hours. The film flies by and before you know it, you are right smack dab in the middle of a thunderous final showdown between one of Syndrome’s horrifying creations and the Parr clan. The action will keep the kids glued to the screen, even more so than some of the other Pixar films. While the film does get a bit heavy when it deals with the inner workings of a rocky marriage, the kids won’t really notice and instead by enamored with all the nifty gadgets and laughing over Edna. For fans of comic books and superhero films, The Incredibles is essential viewing and in my opinion ranks as one of the better superhero films to emerge from Hollywood. It is just as interested with the people under the cowls and what they carry around in their heavy hearts. Easily in my top three Pixar films of all time, The Incredibles is a touching film about the beauty of family and friends, all while being a relentlessly entertaining superhero thrill ride packed with gut-busting humor and wit. Let’s hope the Parr clan returns to save the world again.
The Incredibles is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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.