Joss Whedon

Review: The Avengers 3D

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I am NOT calling it Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is just insulting to our collective intelligence. Humph.

The Pitch: The long-haired god and his immovable object meet the irresistible force, the irascible scientist, the irresponsible robot, the irritable Russian, the invincible soldier, some guy with a bow and arrow and Samuel L. M***********’ Jackson.

The Review: For so many years, Marvel comic adaptations were the poorer cousins of their DC counterparts. While Batman and Superman films have dominated the blockbuster scene for thirty years and more, Marvel had to contend themselves with The Punisher, Howard The Duck and repeated failed attempts at a Captain America film. Then the last decade has seen a revolution, with the X-Men and Spider-Man being given successful treatment by filmmakers who actually knew what they were doing. But these were outsourced properties, and if Marvel was going to put its own stamp on the movies, what better way to do it with the biggest of all their properties, the Avengers? Over the last five years they’ve been testing the water with individual adaptations of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, but it became clear that this was not only a strong array of characters but a massive collection of egos. Would it even be possible to get all of these massive Marvels onto the same screen? And who could do justice to them if they did?

Step forward one Joss Whedon, master of small screen and comic book culture, but a man who’s had a somewhat less than impressive record himself when it comes to big screen adaptations. Put simply, from Alien: Resurrection to Serenity Whedon has at best a cult following, but there may have been no-one better suited to bringing this clash of the titans together. No matter what the medium, Joss has a track record of marshaling large rosters of characters, and there’s a huge list lined up here from the best of Marvel’s own brand adaptations. This does create two problems up front: to actually assemble the Avengers takes an inordinate amount of time, as they’re rounded up one by one, and there’s then a significant imbalance in the back story afforded, with Thor and Captain America getting further exploration of their methods and motivations while poor old Hawkeye still gets little more than a name and an prior affiliation with a SHIELD colleague. If Basil Exposition had been a comic book character, he would’ve fit right into the Avengers.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot of nice moments or sharp dialogue, but that’s all they are, never quite gelling together or giving the plot the forward momentum it needs. Sure, it’s great to have an excuse to get them all together, but motivations in some cases are a little weak and throwaway in a way that comic books can often get away with but which seem more exposed on screen. Many of the best throwaway moments are given to Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, the potential star of the ensemble right from his first appearance in the shiny red suit four years ago, but the other major success story is Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, with a much better balance between Banner and beast than either of the previous attempts, playing well on Ruffalo’s natural charm but also managing a brooding menace. The rest of the Avengers themselves all get moments to shine but rarely steal the screen. Of the Avengers themselves, Hawkeye is the most underused, and while both Nick Fury and Agent “Phil” Coulson have some zingers to hand out, but Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill feels like she’s just being set up for future installments. As for the bad guys, Loki is even better here, Tom Hiddleston commanding the screen – no mean feat against such a roster of hero talent – but he’s poorly served by a supporting army who prove nothing more than Avenger fodder for the final battle.

Ah, the final battle. Once all of the Avengers are assembled, and something has finally been worked out for them to be Avenging, Whedon and co finally let rip. Everything that you’d possibly hoped this could be and more comes to pass, with scores of moments to please both the general crowd and the fanboys and an epic sweep to the action, which comes in wave after wave of that Avenger fodder mentioned earlier, that does finally give each of its leads stand out, iconic moments. The third act of The Avengers, taken on its own, has to be one of the best summer blockbusters ever, there’s just a risk that when you get the Blu-ray that may be the stretch which gets worn out first, as everything of the highest quality is weighted into that final third. Producer Kevin Feige somewhat bizarrely compared The Avengers to the most recent Transformers sequel in interviews, and he’s actually right in the sense that the film increases in quality over the course of time, but thankfully even the dullest moments here are better than the heights that the giant fighty robots managed last time out. The better comparison here is the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies, for despite what amounts to five prequels The Avengers turns out to be an origin movie, as good as its Marvel brethren but sadly suffering from the same flaws as almost every origin film in its genre. When you consider how well the second entries in each series turned out, and how high the heights reached are here, you’ll be salivating at the thought of Avengers 2. Let’s just hope that Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and all of the other required interquels can keep us entertained in the mean time.

Why see it at the cinema: For the first of the main summer blockbusters of the years it’s oddly uncinematic, shot in 1.85:1 (the widescreen TV ratio, rather than the normal cinema widescreen of 2.35:1), but the combination of the sweeping visuals and the gut-aching humour of the last third mean this is best seen with company.

Why see it in 3D: Don’t, if you can help it. The first third is swathed in darkness and becomes almost unwatchable with the polarising filter reducing the light levels, and when the film does move into daylight some of the 3D in-your-face moments have a disappointing feeling of fakery. You’re absolutely better off not paying the premium.

Should I wait for the obligatory end credits sequence? Only if you’re a hardcore fanboy. I’m not, so I had to come home and Google what happened. This one’s also in the middle of the credits, so only sit through all the names if you have a genuine appreciation for the craft involved or Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score.

The Score: 8/10

Previous reviews in the series: Iron Man 2 and Thor 3D.

UCC Review: The Cabin In The Woods

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The Pitch: The first rule of The Cabin In The Woods is, you don’t talk about The Cabin In The Woods.

The Review: There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie. Did you know, though, that those rules apply to the audience as much as they do to the characters? We now live in a culture where it’s possible to watch pretty much anything seven days after it’s aired on TV, even if you didn’t record it; but only if you have no desire to watch it without knowing what happens. Likely Lads Terry and Bob thought they had it bad trying to avoid the footy score, but these days you can’t even watch an episode of anything from Masterchef to The Walking Dead unless you’re willing to cut yourself off from friends, the internet and social media as today, the tools that allow us to communicate feed instant discussion and analysis and leave no hope for spoilerphobes. So what chance have you got of watching a horror movie that depends on its surprise for gaining the most enjoyment, and that’s been sat on the shelf gathering dust for three years?

Be afraid. Be very afraid. But maybe that fear is what will get you to The Cabin In The Woods unspoiled. If you’re reading this review and you haven’t seen it, then curiosity is already probably getting the better of you, and that kind of recklessness wouldn’t see you last five minutes. But you already knew that – you’ve seen horror movies before, who hasn’t? – and it’s that very fact that means if you don’t go into a film written by creator of Buffy and Angel and directed by the writer of Cloverfield expecting that it knows its audience watch horror movies, then you’ve probably not seen enough popular culture in general. But in the post-Scream era, just being self-referential about your genre isn’t enough; to truly stand out you either need to innovate, or you need to be damn good at what you do.

Whether it’s April or whether it’s Hallowe’en, everyone’s entitled to one good scare. But those expecting a film delivering wall to wall scares may be in for a disappointment, for while Cabin has a decent set of scares and a reasonable dose of gore, it’s primary achievement is that it’s consistently hilarious from start to finish. Some of the subtler jokes will depend on both your deep knowledge of horror and also your ability to pick up details in the background, but by and large it’s the characters front and centre that will have you rolling in the aisles. Where the genius starts to become apparent is that Cabin can switch between humour and fright seemingly at will, without ever losing the impact of either. It also has the most bizarrely erotic moment seen in any film in living memory, which while relevant to nothing else in the film will probably live long in your memory.

But whatever you do, don’t fall asleep, for The Cabin In The Woods moves at a fair old lick. While much horror relies on the slow burn, Cabin expects you to come with it on the journey, and conceptually it’s a long way from where we start to where we end up. Taking that journey are the cast of relative unknowns venturing into the woods, although Chris Hemsworth has found global fame since this film was in front of the cameras. Of the others, the standout is Randy-from-Scream clone Fran Kranz who steals most of the scenes he’s in and grabs a fair chunk of the best lines. There are two other well known faces who have big roles and who help to elevate the film to what it is, but given that they’re not even in the trailer, even mentioning in their names is more of a spoiler than I’d like to give you.

We all go a little mad sometimes, and frankly attempting to review this without giving the game away has almost driven me crazy.  But back to my point from earlier: The Cabin In The Woods is being touted as revolutionary, and on that I’m not convinced that it is, but it certainly doesn’t hold back, and at the various points where you find yourself thinking where the story could go next, and hoping against hope that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have the balls to deliver what you’d most like to see, they never, ever disappoint. So what The Cabin In The Woods does achieve is being entertainment on the grandest of scales, an absolute joy from the first moment to the last as you put the pieces together to see if you can get to the end game before the characters, and it will become endlessly quotable once everyone that’s interested has actually seen it. Others might have trodden the path before, but Whedon and Goddard have proven they have what it takes to be considered right at the top of the tree where big scares mixed with hard laughs are concerned. Hail to the kings, baby.

Why see it at the cinema: I’m not sure what I expected, but I know I didn’t expect this film to be quite so consistently funny in a way that doesn’t undercut the scares. Comedy and horror are the two best friends of audience reaction, and there’s reason enough to see it on the big screen, but there is undoubtedly some imagery that will also benefit, and even the sound design screams “See me in a cinema!” if you’ll pardon the pun. But the sooner you see it, ideally on opening day, the less chance you have of one of your less intelligent friends blowing the whole gaff.

The Score: 10/10

I saw this film at Ultra Culture Cinema #09: for my review of that, see here.

Review: Ultra Culture Cinema #09

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All the world's a stage, and some of the men and women merely stooges for our impending comedy entertainment.

London. City of dreams, land of opportunity, where everyone is 19% more good looking than elsewhere in the country, where you might have to remortgage your house to be able to eat at the best restaurants and home of the most diverse range of cinemas known to man. I’m a country mouse in blogging terms, stuck up here in the Fens with good quality cinemas all around but missing out on the advanced previews and shiny, star-laden premieres of Leicester Square and the like. Even in the West End, though, there’s a difference between the mainstream and the art house, and if you’re looking for something more thought provoking and stimulating then you could do worse than seek out the Institute of Contemporary Arts, tucked away from the bright lights, stale popcorn and over-inflated prices of Leicester Square as it is on The Mall. But it’s also been the occasional home for the past couple of years to Ultra Culture’s imaginatively-titled Ultra Culture Cinema series.

Purveyor of culture of the ultra variety.

Ultra Culture, or Charlie Lyne as he is known to people who don’t call each other by their Twitter usernames, might be a well known face to those who watch Film 2012 (or, more precisely, watched Film 2011 when he was actually on it), but sadly the format of the revamped programme has never given its contributors the chance to be themselves, so the better outlet for Charlie’s brand of insight and humour is undoubtedly his own show, and how better to do that in London with a stage show? Events like this are also a great opportunity to see films before their general release for plebs like me, so I can, on this occasion, get one over on Mr Joe Public. (Apart from all the people who saw it at the raft of other free public screenings earlier this week. Balls.)

This is the first time I’ve managed to venture down to London for one of these nights, but reviews of previous evenings seemed to suggest that we’d be treated to more than just a film. What I was treated to first was the the company of a familiar face from my visits to Empire’s Movie-Con / Big Screen events, so I didn’t have to spend the evening sipping my orange juice alone in the ICA’s trendy white cafe, which feels like it’s been decorated upstairs in the IKEA Clockwork Orange range. Which was nice. (Both the company and the decor, that is.) Said friend Marie also seemed to know about half the people in the bar, so it really did feel like a home away from home.

The other thing that also made me feel right at home was the preponderance of gingers. Almost as if some sort of subliminal redhead Pied Piper effect was at play, the presence of the nation’s premier red top film blogger, in the more literal sense, seemed to have been a rallying call for the auburn and the strawberry blond across the capital. If you don’t believe me, here’s the photographic evidence:

Given that the average proportion of those with a copper-coloured top in the general populace is 2 – 6%, it was clear that this was the hot ticket for those with hot hair. As a redhead myself, it was comforting to be surrounded by so many of my kind. If that wasn’t great enough, someone then moved through the crowd handing out Mini Eggs. Sometimes it’s the little things, y’know?

However, the one ginger that mattered was the one on stage, and at around the scheduled start time we were ushered in to take our seats. There was then a flurry of activity, as prizes were rapidly handed out for drawing on walls and other random achievements, but the core of the pre-movie entertainment was a short play, penned by Charlie himself. This might be misleading for two reasons: to suggest it was a play would suggest there were actual actors, rather than punters conscripted out of the audience to read the other parts from their scripts, and to suggest it was short might be based on Charlie’s original estimate of its duration (about 15 minutes) rather than its actual duration (nearer 40 minutes).

Four volunteers were brought up on stage to enact the story, a tale of how writer and director Rolfe Kanefsky made a self-referential horror movie called There’s Nothing Out There, featuring a character who knows that they’re in a horror movie, so has watched other horror movies so he knows “The Rules”. The play featured “Kanefsky”, as well as “Wes Craven” and a number of other characters, some with indecipherable accents, as well as live musical accompaniment played on the supplied instruments, including a saxoflute, a playmonica and a tambourine. Eat your heart out, Mark Kermode and the Dodge Brothers.

The highlights of the the “play” included some malfunctioning flame effects on the Keynote presentation which caused much disappointment in our host, but much cheering in our audience when it started working on the next slide, one of the male actors who appeared to start on the improv when it became apparent that one of the chosen actors would win the rest of the prizes, and the supporting actress taking the narration line “And now, Scream” far too literally and eliciting a high-pitched scream with impeccable comic timing, thus enabling her to walk off with that bag of prizes.

We were also treated to, as part of the play (which, thanks to its combination of Keynote speech, Charlie’s narration and the scandal of how Wes Craven may have ripped off Kanefsky, felt like the An Inconvenient Truth of self-referential horror movies) a run-down of Rolfe Kanefsky’s other works, including Sex Files: Alien Erotica, Jacqueline Hyde (say it out loud and it makes sense) and Emmanuelle in Wonderland, and we were also presented with the epic trailer for the high point of Rolfe’s career, The Erotic Misadventures Of The Invisible Man. Sadly, as this is a PG blog I can’t share the trailer for that with you – I’m also fearful of the level of spam that linking its trailer might generate from the kind of sites hosting it – but I can share the tralier for Kanefsky’s original meisterwerk, There’s Nothing Out There. (Yes, it’s not really PG either, but whatever.)

After all that, we got to watch a film, which for many people was the point of being there. There was also possibly the most shambolic intro from the talent ever witnessed, as Drew Goddard and star Jesse Williams bore a contorted look of confusion on their face as they attempted to understand what an “Ultra… Culture Cinema?” actually was, while in the middle of introducing it. My full review of the film is available here, but let me just say for now that The Cabin In The Woods is magnificent, and while it may not be totally the revolutionary deconstruction of the horror genre that some are claiming, it is both hysterically funny (my face is still aching 24 hours later from the laughing) and on occasion, properly scary. If you’ve seen the trailer and think you know what you’re in for, then you may well still be pleasantly surprised, and you’ll get nothing more out of me. The genuinely appreciative audience screamed, whooped and hollered at all the appropriate points, and made their appreciation known at the end.

We then all decamped to the bar again on the promise of a late licence, what people as old as me would call a disco and “Easter Presents”, although given that I had to have just one quick drink and head for the Tube back to my car, I didn’t see any presents. There is always the possibility that I misheard and it was actually an “Easter Presence” in the bar; if Jesus was around, I hope he enjoyed the evening as much as I did.

But would it not have been better just to have the film without all of titting around before and after? Frankly, no. The cinema experience is becoming lost and diluted, and in this age of 3D cinema and vibrating cinema seats attempting to keep punters putting our bums on their seats, actually a little bit of showmanship, an education and a right good laugh were the perfect warm up, got everyone in just the right mood for Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s epic and actually made the film itself even more enjoyable, if such a thing is possible. For anyone doubting what the cinema experience has to offer, or just hoping to eat Mini Eggs and draw pictures of horror movies in a room packed with gingers, then I strongly recommend giving the next Ultra Culture Cinema a try.