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Column Fri May 04 2012
The reason a super-group comic book like The Avengers is so much fun is because its members spend as much time clashing into each other as they do the foes they fought every month. Someone asked me recently to compare director and co-writer Joss Whedon's The Avengers with the X-Men movies, and the reality is, you can't — not fairly at least. The members of the X-Men came together under a common struggle (mutant rights), and are all trained by the same methods as each other (for the most part). But The Avengers are like puzzle pieces that were never meant to go together, and with the exception of Captain America (Chris Evans), they don't even really see themselves as heroes, let alone ones fighting a common enemy.
The story of The Avengers gives these solo acts that unifying enemy: an alien army brought to earth by Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) adopted brother Loki (the magnificent Tom Hiddleston, easily my favorite performer in the film). But before Whedon even gets to that point, he gives us micro-stories about where the lead characters sit in the grand scheme of their own lives.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is fiddling around with turning the renewable energy source that powers his heart and suit into an actual, real-world source of green energy (that damn tree-hugger), which is a coincidence since the Cosmic Cube that played a role in both the Thor and Captain America movies last summer is also a source of renewable energy. But Stark is the character who has the most growing up to do, and being a part of this team forces him to "play well with others." It's actually kind of great watching Downey give Stark a mature edge, even as he's cracking jokes at the expense of the other Avengers.
Steve Rogers/Captain America is still very much struggling to be less of a man out of time. He's missing references in everyday conversation and jokes, making both tough for him. There's a cute moment when someone makes a "flying monkeys" reference he actually gets, and the excitement in his eyes is wondrous. It's not until the fighting starts that Rogers finally shows signs that he's in his element, and he comes to life magnificently, flinging his shield with a force only hinted at in his movie.
Thor just kind of exists in Avengers, and I don't mean that in a bad way. He appears out of nowhere, searching for his still-loved brother, and it's clear that he feels somewhat responsible for Loki's turn to the side of mischief and destruction. What Thor brings to this movie (aside from a whole lot of lightening, thunder and brutal hammer action) is the emotional weight. As much fun as it is to watch Loki have so much fun manipulating everyone who crosses his line of sight, Thor's love for his wayward sibling makes Loki a tragic character in so many necessary ways.
Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) doesn't get to enter the picture until the threat is eminent. He's in hiding, living a mostly quiet life in India in an effort to keep the Hulk at bay. Although he's brought into the fold for his brains and not his braun (apparently the cube is emitting gamma rays, which Banner is an expert in), everyone wants to know how he keeps "the other guy" under control. When he finally reveals his secret to not getting angry, my stomach actually dropped. The actual Hulk doesn't appear in the film until nearly the 1.5-hour mark (of the 2.5-hour film), so clearly Whedon believes Banner is nearly as (if not more) important than the green behemoth, and Ruffalo is so strong in the role, I don't think too many people will be crying about Edward Norton's absence — although he would have been awesome too, I'm sure.
The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are cut from the same cloth: both are SHIELD agents (under the command of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury), master assassins by training, with painful pasts that are only hinted at in The Avengers. I'm guessing deeper looks into their respective pasts are being held back in case the characters get solo films, which they should. Hawkeye is given an interesting introduction in this story as his mind is taken over by Loki right off the bat, and he spends a significant portion of the film as a mindless slave. Black Widow actually grew on me as a character, whereas she really didn't work for me as a part of Iron Man 2. Her martial arts skills are insane, brutal and efficient. And her chase scene through the SHIELD Helicarrier with the Hulk barreling down behind her is fantastic stuff, which proves something I've always suspected — if you aren't strong enough to fight the Hulk, the best defense is make yourself very small and skillfully run and hide from the big bastard.
If I had to clock the screentime of each character in The Avengers, I wouldn't be surprised if Loki had the most. And if that isn't true, it sure feels that way, and I am perfectly alright with that. I spent a good deal of 2011 discovering Tom Hiddleston through Thor, Midnight In Paris and War Horse — and if you haven't seen him in The Deep Blue Sea, which came out in the US this year, you really have only experienced a portion of the awful person he's capable of portraying.
But Loki's smile is pure devil, his mind is that of a master manipulator, and he somehow doesn't look ridiculous with a giant horned helmet on his head. With a whole lot of competition, Loki is my favorite character in The Avengers because he's the best written, pure and simple. He plays each team member differently, using their personal shortcomings against them. It's not impossible to play Loki the way he plays with victims, but it ain't easy. And it's actually kind of cool who has the most success handing him his ass when it comes to outsmarting him brain vs. brain.
Yes, members of The Avengers get to fight each other before they take on the alien army, but those moments are almost obligatory, although no less fun. If I had one major complaint about The Avengers, it would be about that army. The aliens look and drop like videogame villains that can never seem to hit their mark and go down like they're made of construction paper. The idea of one of those nondescript creatures taking down a member of the team doesn't seem feasible, let alone likely, so they really don't add much dramatic weight to the enormous climactic battle. But even that doesn't reduce the effectiveness of the mega-destructive final 45 minutes or so, which really give the Hulk a chance to spread his arms and use them to knock down aliens, buildings and certain Aasgardians.
I love that Whedon gets to spend 2012 in the mainstream spotlight, between The Avengers and the long-delayed The Cabin in the Woods (which he produced and co-wrote), both of which are presently in my top-five favorite films of the year so far. I was never a die-hard Whedonite, although I've sampled some of his TV work over the years and am very much looking forward to what he does with the already-shot Much Ado About Nothing. It never even crossed my mind that he'd get The Avengers wrong, but I never would have predicted just how perfectly he pulls this off.
This isn't just a triumph in the arena of Marvel movies or superhero films; more accurately, this is one of the most entertaining films I've seen at this scale. It succeeds with action, humor, intelligence, a touch of psychological drama, and phenomenal special effects. And by embracing the flaws in each of its characters, The Avengers is more than just an impressive movie; it's also an easy film to love. That's doesn't happen nearly enough in films with nine-figure budgets. The summer is looking a whole lot brighter; we'll see how long that feeling lasts.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Every year or two, a film comes around that is grandparent-safe, either because the cast's average age is about the same as your typical grandparent, or because the subject matter is so placid that there's no risk of offending the elderly. I suppose director John Madden's (Shakespeare In Love, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Proof, The Debt) latest, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, based on the novel by Deborah Moggach, fits the bill for bubbies around the world, if you define "safe" as something with no sharp edges or anything to substantially challenge those watching.
The problems with Marigold Hotel are simple, show up early, and rarely leave the screen. Most of the film's characters are dreadfully boring, and even the ones that eventually grow a personality in their winter years do so in a way that feel contrived, bordering on forced. The film involves a young Indian hotel manager (Dev Patel, the lead in Slumdog Millionaire) of a somewhat broken-down establishment who advertises the the hotel as a place where older clientele can relax, and several British gray-hairs decide to take an extended vacation at the hotel, including those played by Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, and the unstoppable Maggie Smith.
Some of the residents embrace the shortcomings of the hotel and the surrounding culture, while others flat out refuse to leave the compound. The film walks us through the trials and tribulations of each of the visitors — the lonely widow (Dench), the miserable married couple (Nighy and Wilton), the hateful spinster (Smith), and the aging gay man (Wilkinson) searching for his first love during his teen years. Some of what happens is sweet, funny, heartbreaking and, above all else, as predictable as 12:31pm following 12:30pm.
Nothing reduces a movie into its dullest parts faster than predictability. The only thing worse is being pointless, and there's a subplot involving Patel, his girlfriend, and his disapproving mother that seems to be there for no other reason than to include some Indian actors in a tale about, you know, India. So what Marigold Hotel ends up feeling like is an imitation of life. Not every movie has to have twist endings, life-altering experiences that set the character down a new path, or a post-credits special scene; I get that. But Madden doesn't give us anything to actually fill us with a sense of India's transcendent qualities, and I wanted some of what these old guys were having.
Probably doing the best work in the film are Dench and Nighy, but put those two in just about any movie and that would probably be the case. Using very different techniques and possessing distinct strengths, Dench and Nighy have found ways to command the screen at all times — Dench with her powerful voice and piercing stare; Nighy with his charming uncertainty followed immediately by a nervous certainty about the direction his life needs to take.
Words like "love" and "life" and ovations about how long its taken these characters so long to find pure versions of either will certainly make their way into most critical reviews of this film. And if you see that in other reviews, you'll know which critics are lazy. Marigold Hotel is about as exciting as wallpaper, and you'll learn as much about restarting your life as you might from a book of stamps, and that's assuming you're able to stay awake during this excessively boring travelogue of a film. Only see this after a good night's sleep. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman knows the benefits and perils of formula horror filmmaking, having directed the second, third, and fourth Saw movies. The benefit of such predictable movies is that once a franchise is firmly established, even the worst of the installments tend to make money (I'm not calling Bousman's Saw films the worst; in fact, I remember having a twisted fondness for Saw II, in particular).
Escaping his shackles of making movies where character development and real emotion gave way to senselessly elaborate killings and victims we could not have cared two shits about, Bousman took a brave and unusual turn into a territory called Repo! The Genetic Opera, a bloody, gore-laden musical that remains as divisive today as it was risky to make in the first place. I happened to love Repo!, and audiences keep turning out for midnight screenings around the nation. I recently found out that the film is actually expanding into the most theaters it has ever played in during the next few months of 2010. The damn thing is actually getting more popular as a theatrical event, despite it having been released on DVD more than a year ago.
When I first heard that Bousman was tackling a loose remake of the early Troma work from director Charles Kaufman, Mother's Day, I thought for sure that the kitschy elements of Repo! (or from the original Mother's Day) would be the order of the day for this effort. I'll be the first to admit I was waaaaay off base with that prediction. Thanks to a powerful script from Scott Milam, this Mother's Day is a relentless feat that forced me to reconsider what American horror is capable of, much in the same way some of the great recent scare films from Europe have impressed me a great deal.
The film bears no resemblance (thankfully so) to the lame, disconnected horror of late, such as A Nightmare of Elm Street or the last couple of Saw films. That way of handling horror is effectively dead to me; at best, it's a step back from far more interesting works like the remake of Last House on the Left, The Crazies or Daybreakers, all of which actually spent two or three minutes getting to know its characters before putting them through hell. Here's a free piece of advice to all future horror filmmakers: if the audience actually cares about your characters, the impact when they die will be so much deeper. That's what you want and what you should aspire to.
Of course, one way to make us care more about characters is to hire solid actors to portray them, and it's refreshing to see a film that isn't as concerned about packing its cast with a bunch of pretty boys and girls, and instead gives us a selection of solid performers who actually have the chops to convey a range of emotion. I'm in no way implying that Bousman has loaded his film with freaks — there are actually quite a few attractive people in this movie — but their looks are downplayed quite a bit. This is a film I believe is supposed to take place in Nebraska, so it would be ridiculous for these folks to dress like trendy partygoers in New York or LA. Since the film opens with a low-key party in the new home of Daniel and Beth Sohapi (Frank Grillo and Jaime King), we know right away these are ordinary people playing dress up for this particular gathering.
The film abruptly cuts to a truck racing through a corn field. Inside are the Koffin brothers, including youngest brother Johnny (Matt O'Leary, who played "The Brain" in Brick) who is shot and likely about to die from his injuries. Oldest brother Ike (a truly terrifying Patrick Flueger, most recently seen in the Footloose remake) and middle child and convicted rapist Addley (Warren Kole) round out the vehicle inhabitants, yelling at Johnny to "man up" and "stop being such a pussy." Lot of love in that truck. They manage to contact their sister Lydia ("True Blood's" Deborah Ann Woll) to grab their mother and meet them at their home. What the brothers don't realize is that dear mother lost the home in question in a foreclosure, and the Sohapi couple snatched it up before it went on the market (Beth is a real estate agent).
When the brothers arrive at the house, they break in and immediately realize everything is wrong. Just as they're about the leave, they hear noises from the party in the basement. Still not clear on what is happening, the brothers take everyone in the house prisoner until their mother arrives. A still incredibly gorgeous and engaging Rebecca De Mornay plays Mother, who at first seems to be a woman of reason and sense. But it doesn't take long for her warped sense of righteousness, strict rules, and punishment rise to the surface and turn this bad situation into absolute hell. In the background of Mother's Day is the impending threat of tornados, but for some reason they don't carry nearly the threat level that De Mornay musters. There are the tiniest hints of some campiness to her performance, but then she pulls back and grounds herself one of the most fully realized screen villains I've seen in ages.
Mother's Day splits into two films at one point as Beth and Ike leave the house with the guests' ATM cards and passwords to clean out bank accounts, leaving a basement full of terrified people to cope with the remaining Koffins. Just to be completely clear, Bousman doesn't exactly hold back on the blood, and he makes it clear early on that no one's life is sacred on either side of this struggle. The family has a sadistic streak that manifests itself in some gut-wrenching "punishments" for guests who get out of line by trying to escape. My toes are curling just remembering some of what Mother dreams up.
The separate sequences with Ike and Beth are also really strong as King maintains a look in her eye that is a combination of good old-fashioned fear and a cunning that lets us know she will make every and any move to escape Flueger's dumb but not stupid Ike. It's a great cat-and-mouse game that leads to some seriously nasty places, especially one involving two party girls that stumble across them at an ATM machine and pay an awful price. Flueger is a real find and his ability to project pent-up rage is almost too good. King borrows a bit from her own excellent work in My Bloody Valentine, which went far beyond simply being a screaming victim. In Mother's Day she's an aggressive force with many secrets hidden away in her head that could substantially throw the balance off between her and her captors. This is by far King's best work to date.
A particular favorite performance of mine comes from Shawn Ashmore as George, a doctor at the party who is charged by the family with keeping Johnny alive, which means he actually has some power over them. Pointing a gun at him doesn't have much of an impact since killing him mean Johnny's death. His manipulations of Lydia provides some fascinating tension in a couple of key moments. Perhaps the most daring aspect to Mother's Day is that there are moments when Bousman allows us to feel a little sorry for the siblings for reasons I won't go completely into. They were home schooled (poorly, as you may have guessed) and meant to fear the outside world in an effort by Mother to keep them close and devoted to her. But the instability goes far deeper than that.
It turns out that the brothers, not knowing their mother had moved (into a mobile home, no less), had been sending envelopes of cash to her old address, which leads Mother to believe that Beth or Daniel or both have a healthy stash of cash hidden away somewhere. Both convincingly deny this, but that doesn't stop Mother from torturing Daniel just to be sure. Brutal. But Mother can also be compassionate, such as the scene where she offers her dying youngest son the chance to lose his virginity to one of the hostages before he croaks. Briana Evigan is the unfortunate lady chosen for this horrible task, and she plays the scene perfectly, but that doesn't stop it from being the film's one true off-putting moment.
But how rare is it that any horror offerings gives us the chance to see things through the eyes and thought processes of the villains. Bausman makes it absolutely clear that these characters were not born evil. They were raised that way, and in their collective minds, what they are doing is absolutely justified. He's not trying to get us to see them as heroes or victims, but the idea of opening our minds to the possibility is something I rarely see in a movie like this. I'd even go so far as to say that Mother's Day isn't a horror film; it's an intense, horrific drama. And while popular home invasion films like Last House on the Left or The Strangers, which cover some of the same ground as this movie, are set deep in the isolated woods, Mother's Day happens in a nice, normal neighborhood. This house is surrounded by other homes, but because most of the action in the film takes place inside, the neighbors would have no way of knowing what was transpiring.
The only thing that Mother's Day and Nightmare on Elm Street have in common (and the only thing they should have in common) is that both are clearly directed by talented, skilled filmmakers with a clear vision in mind for their work. But what makes Mother's Day infinitely better as a complete, thought-provoking work is a clear sense of emotional resonance. When a character cries from pure anxiety overload, I'm right there with them. There are as many heated battles among the captives about whether they should stay put or attempt an escape rather than continue to be victims of brutal acts inflicted on them by the Koffins. Bousman wants us just as nervous about what these prisoners are going to do as he wants to make us quake at the possibilities that mother Mother and her kids can come up with. Mission: accomplished.
Mother's Day's power stems from its grey areas and moral complexity. I see more horror films in a given year than I can handle. But the turn off in my head isn't from torture or gore or exploitation; the turn off comes when it's disgustingly clear that movies have been sliced and diced to fit a formula (a proven one, yes, but one that is fading fast with audiences). Mother's Day is not cookie-cutter horror filmmaking. There is genuine thinking going on here. Even the ending is unusual and will leave you with a hollow, twisted feeling in your gut. I fucking love that sensation, and I fucking love this movie. This is one of the good ones of this genre and shouldn't be missed. The film opens today at the AMC River East theaters, and you should totally take your mom to it if it's still there next weekend.