Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Avengers

Three weeks after its release, The Avengers is still number one at the box office (take that, Battleship!) and shattering records.  Toppling domestic records isn't really novel these days.  More theatres/screens, higher ticket prices and the premium-priced 3D fad makes it pretty easy for a hyped and well-received film to rake in the dough.

But the success of The Avengers is slightly more satisfying than your average summer blockbuster for two reasons...the sheer audacity of the Marvel movie universe plan and the film's director, Joss Whedon.

Films based on Marvel Comics characters have been successful for quite some time.  X-Men and Spider-Man started the comic book feature craze with three successful films each (one could argue that two should have been sufficient) and brought our favorite superheroes to life.  But for all that success there were plenty of duds...Ghost Rider, Hulk, two Fantastic Four movies (which suffered more from bad casting than anything). By the late 2000s, the death of the superhero film genre was being sounded, especially after 2008.

2008 saw the release of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's noirish Batman masterpiece that proved that a film about a guy in a bat-suit and his clownish foil could be as engrossing and intelligent as any Sundance film.  It represented a clear zenith in comic book film and busted many a block on its own.

But there were two other superhero films released in 2008 that were the beginning of something special, but no one knew it at the time.  Iron Man was surprisingly fun and exciting but mostly praised (and rightfully so) for its star, Robert Downey, Jr.  One has to think that the Marvel Movie Universe might not exist had anyone else been cast as industrialist/playboy Tony Stark...the anti-Bruce Wayne if you will.  Downey hit all the right notes in his portrayal of a lesser-known (at least to the masses) comic character.

The other movie released just a month later didn't get quite as much fanfare...The Incredible Hulk.  A vast improvement over the previous Hulk film, Marvel didn't hype any connection with Iron Man, but sharp viewers who stayed after the credits (now a prerequisite for all Marvel films) were treated to a cameo from Downey's Stark, implying that something much bigger was going on here.  These weren't individual properties picking from the remnant characters not already snatched up by other studios...this was a conscious effort to introduce several characters before bringing them all together...just as their four-color inspiration did years ago.  Three more huge films later and we were ready for The Avengers.  It's an accomplishment few studios can dream of, let alone pull off.  It was a gamble and it worked.

Then there's Joss Whedon.  Long a hero to the geek crowd and critical darling for his TV work (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse), Joss had yet to "break out" into the respected superstar he should be (a la J. J. Abrams).  When he was handed the reigns for this film, the collective fanboy community gasped...everyone else said, "who?"  They probably won't be saying that anymore.  As someone that has admired and been moved by his work for a long time, his new status feels justified.

After all this ramble, an actual review of The Avengers may seem overblown (and seriously, who hasn't seen it), so I won't dig too deep.  Suffice to say that five films introducing these characters and creating this cinematic universe meant this movie got to jump right into the good stuff.  Seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and company sharing the same screen is impressive and oh-so-satisfying.

The plot concerning Thor's trickster "brother" Loki and a plot to subjugate Earth is the means to an end to bring a group of big personalities (with incredible powers) together.  They seem an unlikely "team" to say the least, but that's exactly where Joss' direction and screenwriting excels.  He's a master of ensemble work and lends the story just the right amounts of sensitivity and wit.

The unexpected "star" of the film isn't even a real actor...the Hulk.  While I still think Ed Norton's Hulk film is vastly unappreciated, this is by far the best version of the meek scientist and his big green id.  Mark Ruffalo does great work as Bruce Banner and when the Hulk is fully unleashed for the grand battle finale, he easily provides many of the most exciting moments and amazing effects work.

The Avengers deserves its success, as does Joss Whedon...its back story is remarkable but more importantly, the end result is at least as much (and honestly even more) than we could have hoped for.  We're in for a whole lot more in this universe and I cannot wait.

Rating:  A

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Hunger Games

Reviewing a blockbuster like The Hunger Games seems a little unnecessary, especially a couple weeks after its release.  By now, half the country has seen it and the hype/love for the books made it review proof anyway (and the reviews are good).  Still, at least one person asked me to cover it and I can't disappoint my followers...all 5 of them.

The nation of Panem is divided into 12 Districts and a wealthy Capitol...said districts are mostly poor and subjected after some rebellion gone wrong.  The movie never seems to indicate if this world is actually ours (I'm told the books do reveal it to be our apocalyptic future), but the parable to big government & poorer outliers is obvious.  Every year, each district randomly selects a teenage boy or girl to be a contestant in a brutal reality game show known as the Hunger Games, a fight to the death where only one child can win.  The games seem more or less fixed for a couple districts to typically win, but the sense of hope for other districts keeps them in line and watching religiously.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), from the poorest District 12, becomes one of these "tributes" after volunteering in place of her sister.  She is quickly whisked to the Capitol and swept up in the showmanship of the Hunger to fight, learning more about the political/commercial aspects of the game and making an entrance that dazzles the audience.

The "game" itself consumes the latter half of the movie and shows the brutal horror of what's happened to this nation and how its citizens allow such atrocities.  Katniss is very skilled at hunting and survival but she gets some help along the way.

Ably directed by Gary Ross, Hunger Games feels briskly paced despite a nearly 2 1/2 hour running time.  Once the game begins, the violence isn't overly bloody by Hollywood standards, but rough & shocking enough to drive the story.  Lawrence initially feels a little too "pretty" to be downtrodden Katniss but quickly grows into the role as the film progresses.

Overall, Hunger Games left me wanting...mostly to read the books and/or see the next two films.  There seems to be a lot more happening in Panem than we are privy to in this glimpse and that's the stuff I'm fascinated by.  A populace so defeated and discouraged that they not only accept a deathmatch fought by children but eagerly watch it year after year.  When one particular Tribute dies their home district riots, a brief sequence that hints at more socio-political strife to come.  The final outcome would seem to indicate that future division is certain.

The obvious commentary in all of this is our own obsession with reality TV, the horrors of war and watching others suffer.  Is it really too difficult to believe that we could end up in this world?  Would we be able to turn off our TVs or turn away?  Corporate sponsorship & viewer popularity already determine so much of what we see and experience.

While The Hunger Games isn't necessarily original or even surprising (most of the outcome isn't unexpected), it is exciting and intriguing for where the story goes next.

Rating:  B

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Chronicle, Oscar Commentary & More


My first impression upon hearing of Chronicle was that it would be just another "found-footage" flick trying to imitate the success of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield.  But as trailers, commercials and reviews rolled in, I got more and more excited for a tale of three high schoolers who gain superpowers.

Yes, the movie is filmed from hand-held camera POV, but finds clever ways tied to the plot to get around the "shaky" aspect and overcome the limitations that would normally impose.  Other camera footage makes its way into the film as'll be amused at how and why.

After budding videographer and socially awkward Andrew joins his cousin and a popular jock investigating a strange underground cavern, the three young men discover they can manipulate objects with their minds.  With time, these powers grow and the stakes move from teenage pranksters to deadlier matters.

Andrew, coming from a difficult home and show signs of psychological damage, begins to lose sight of keeping their abilities secret and mostly harmless.  His inevitable descent leads to consequences both believable and explosive.

I was most impressed with Chronicle's special effects.  In keeping with the found-footage aspect, the effects are subtle and believable for most of the film, never too overbearing.  The final act lets the film cut loose in an exciting sequence that makes all that subtlety worth it.

Rating:  A-

*   *   *

So the Oscars aired last weekend and the entries were mostly underwhelming.  I was the least prepared I've been in years to make predictions, having skipped AMC's Best Picture Showcase for the first time in four years.  After seeing four of the nominees in recent weeks (btw...Midnight in Paris...very cute and amusing...B), I wasn't upset at that decision.  Last year's crop featured at least 7 films that were worthy of the title...none of what I saw this year came close.  I'm not especially excited to see The Artist, either, though I'm sure it's a fine film.

All told, it was an odd year for movies...but I suppose two months into 2012, I owe you my Best of 2011 film list.

10.   Horrible Bosses
9.     The Help
8.     Super 8
7.     Captain America
6.     Crazy, Stupid, Love
5.     Bridesmaids
4.     Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part II
3.     Moneyball
2.     Thor
1.     X-Men: First Class

Big on geek, small on real film cred...but that's how the MightyMartian rolls.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What I've Been Watching


Alcatraz - B+
Checking out a new J.J. Abrams series is always high on my list and so far only incredibly uneven Undercovers has been a complete bust.  Alcatraz hasn't really delved too far into the mythology behind missing inmates (and a few workers) on the famous island prison who are reappearing in our time, but the hints and pieces of the mystery so far are quite intriguing.  The characters are interesting (another strong female lead in an Abrams show) and the inmate-of-the-week premise, intersecting with flashbacks to 1960s life on the Rock, is working for the moment.  I'll keep watching.

I'm not going to rate this one yet, only two episodes in, but I'm digging the "adult Glee" aspect.  Katherine McPhee is a bigger star than she ever seemed on Idol and the songs are excellent.  Original pieces for the show's Marilyn Monroe musical premise make me actually want to see said show (and if this series continues to be a ratings smash [sorry] I wouldn't be surprised to get one).


The Help - B
A little obvious and heavy-handed at times but a funny script and good performances (Viola Davis feels like a logical Oscar win) keep this film from being the typical Civil Rights drama.  Emma Stone doesn't get to stretch as much as she's capable of as a forward-thinking young woman who wants to write about the lives of the black maids in her town.

Monsters - C-
This low-budget Cloverfield meets District 9 doesn't have the style and wow-factor of the first (the title "monsters" are rarely seen and not nearly as scary) or the sci-fi social commentary of the latter (not-so-vague allusions to illegal immigration and border barriers don't count).  It didn't help that I was indifferent to characters.

Moneyball - A-
This could be the movie that becomes an obsession for me like The Social Network did last year.  Great writing, an understated performance from Brad Pitt and an underdog story that really happened.

The Tree of Life - B
Artistically beautiful, but if you're looking for genuine plot and character development, you won't find it in this scattering of random memories, the kind of precious moments that stay in our heads but aren't necessarily significant.  Terence Malick certainly captures your attention, but this is the kind of movie I'll never feel the need to watch a second time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Best of 2011 - TV

Those waiting for my best movies list (there's gotta be at least one of you) will have to wait a while longer.  Given the poor slate of films I actually saw in theaters last year, I don't feel the list would be broad enough until I see some of the Oscar contenders.

In the meantime, I can speak authoritatively on my other passion...television.  Here are the ten shows that I couldn't stop watching and talking about last year.  (Please note I don't have HBO or Showtime for all of you Game of Thrones & Homeland fans.)

10.  American Horror Story
Horror is a little played out in any medium.  While I didn't consider AHS particularly scary (weirdly creepy is more accurate), I loved the unexpected perversions each week offered up.  Wrapping up the first season story line before moving on anthology-style will hopefully keep it fresh.

9.   Louie
"Based on the life" sitcoms from comedians rarely feel real and while this one may only be loosely based on Louis C.K.'s life, it feels so brutally, uncomfortably honest at times that it could be any of our lives.  When that awkwardness becomes utterly hilarious, you know you're relating.  Standout episode "Duckling" deserves a pile of Emmys.

8.   Happy Endings
The best new series of the year is a little sitcom that ABC tried to burn off as a midseason replacement.  Unjustly compared to Friends, the jokes fly so fast you'll miss two more try to wrap your mind around and subsequently laugh at the first one.  Great characters from a great ensemble.  So many good episodes to choose from, but the Halloween installment stands out in my mind.

7.   Modern Family
The best "traditional" sitcom on TV (there's an entry further up this that I don't think fits the traditional mold) deserves all of its accolades.  I challenge anyone to watch an episode and not laugh out loud at least once.  What surprises me the most is that not a single actor in the ensemble is wasted.  Feature any of them and laughs will follow.

6.   Friday Night Lights
The final season of FNL was guaranteed to be heart-breaking and inspirational.  Wrapping up the story of high school football in Dillon, TX (both East & West), even graduating kids and changing the setting never slowed down the show's potent, honest storytelling, anchored by the wonderful chemistry and love between Coach Taylor and wife Tami (Kyle Chandler & Connie Britton).  Highly recommended series for anyone that loves great characters and moving storytelling.

5.   Community
Fans of Community desperately want it to be beloved and understood by the masses to combat the constant threat of cancellation, but the under-the-radar and way-over-the-head aspect is precisely why fans love it.  I know I enjoy when a gag feels like it was written with me in mind and I'm sure I'm missing half a dozen more that weren't.  This year brought us alternate realities, My Dinner with Abed ("cool, cool, cool, cool, cool") and that Glee-ful Christmas episode that gets funnier with every viewing.

4.   Justified
Season one was cool and introduced us to charismatic Marshall Raylan Givens.  Season two showed us Raylan was all too human...butting heads with a dangerous family led by Emmy winning Margo Martindale.  Beware the apple-pie moonshine...

3.  Southland
I can't thank TNT enough for rescuing this too quickly cast away show from NBC.  A spiritual successor to shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide is never short on shocking & powerful moments, but in an organic way that makes sense to the stories.  This season saw a brutal murder of a main character (in a stomach turning scene that I had to watch twice to believe it even happened), a tense rooftop chase and another character's betrayal.  This isn't a show where you feel comfortable getting attached to anyone.

2.   Fringe
Probably the only truly great science fiction series currently airing, Fringe yet again dared to change its entire structure as it concluded its third season and began the fourth.  Why Anna Torv & John Noble aren't running out of room for acting awards baffles me (other than the typical sci-fi bias) as both have been playing multiple takes on their characters for over two years now.  If this show isn't allowed a proper finish, it will be devastating.

1.   Breaking Bad
Every season I assume that BB has hit its creative peak...tense, carefully constructed plotting, award-worthy seems impossible to top.  Then season 4 came along...not a single wasted episode, each one better than the last, moments that beg you to find someone to talk to about it the next day...and a season finale that exceeded expectations.  One more season to go...and I'm not going to say that they can't top themselves...they will.