Tag Archives: films of 2012

The Avengers (2012)

Director: Joss Whedon

Writers: Zak Penn (story) and Joss Whedon (story & screenplay)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddlestone, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson

Franchise & Film-maker

The Avengers is a triumph! It’s about as much shallow-minded mental fun as is possible to achieve at the movies. This is not to say that you have to turn off your brain to enjoy it; you don’t. In fact, if the human brain is all about sensory input and engagement, then this movie requires your brain to be switched on and, if so, it then rewards you with the pleasurable release of natural joy inducing chemicals into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, you smile, you puzzle, you smile, you laugh, you say, “Wow!” The Avengers is a far better movie than Iron Man (2008) and even better than Spider-man 2 (2004), which I had considered to be the best Marvel adaptation.

In Joss Whedon, Marvel found the perfect film-maker to  handle what was increasingly looking like a burdensome ambition and a movie-going chore; a trip to the theatre done out of obligation rather than desire. Somehow, with Iron Man 2 (2010)Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the set up was becoming boring and in no way did it seem as if the end product was going to justify the efforts and dollars expended. Then, something amazing seems to have happened: the project was handed over to Mr. Whedon and they trusted him and they let his traits come to bear and the fruit on display in this movie is sweet and juicy.

Now, I haven’t been a fan of everything Mr. Whedon has been involved with. I did go through a pretty heavy Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) phase in the late ’90s, but I never got into Angel (1999-2004) or Dollhouse (2009-2010). On the other hand, Firefly (2002) was clearly terrific, but I went into that well after its cancellation and after being underwhelmed by its movie follow-up Serenity (2005). Of course, after binging on Firefly I went back to Serenity and found it to be really pretty great. All of these previous projects now seem to have been perfect preparation for The Avengers. All of them have traits that are present in Mr. Whedon’s film (only his second feature film): revolving and involving a large cast of principal characters, stories progressing along multiple threads, a script teeming with cleverness and zingy lines, actors having fun with their characters and with each other, action sequences that are well-paced and make sense (no Transformers style aesthetic and logical vomit here), and a villain in Loki who is just slightly conflicted, but as charming as he is evil.

I think the film’s success is not entirely due to the efforts and input of Mr. Whedon (and here I’m assuming that it’s North American release will be as tremendous as it’s international — myself, I saw the film last week here in South Korea in a packed theatre). A large part of what makes this film work, i.e. what enables it to be understandable, is the immense marketing effort that Marvel/Disney has put behind it. It really has been, I believe, unprecedented and tremendously ambitious. From the post-credit tag scene at the end of Iron Man to the Tony Stark cameo in The Incredible Hulk (2008) to the all out blitz over the past two years from Iron Man 2 through Thor and Captain America. It’s been risky because those movies, to varying degrees, suffered from the weight of laying the groundwork for The Avengers. In fact, it could possibly be argued that Marvel first planned this assault way back in 2002 when Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch re-imagined the Nick Fury character in the image of Samuel L. Jackson for The Ultimates comic book (this being The Avengers equivalent in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I am hoping more of the style of this comic universe will be on display in the new The Amazing Spider-Man movie later this summer becuase Ultimate Spider-Man is one of my favorite comcis ever). So, if any true comic book aficionado can enlighten me on Marvel’s possible prescience or grand plan,  please chime in. My point is that Marvel has put in a lot of effort to make sure awareness for The Avengers project was extremely high and it looks as if they were willing to take some losses and bad reviews along the way. While since Iron Man in 2008, box office and reviews for these movies have been moving lower and lower, the awareness of the characters and The Avengers as a group has been increasing. Marvel knows that not everyone has seen all of these movies, but what everyone has seen over the past 18 months is a trailer or TV spot or an interview or guest appearance or tweet from one of the principal cast members. The tiresomeness of the releases of Thor and Captain America in particular last summer stemmed in part from the knowledge that the audience was purchasing a ticket to watch an advertisement for the main product: The Avengers. But, even this is not the end product. What Marvel/Disney has set up is far more enduring; they have designed a self-perpetuating content property. This is not just a tent pole franchise; it’s an entire camping park. Whereas Harry Potter and Twilight have had to resort the heavy-handed tactic of splitting the last novel to lengthen their film series (it seems inevitable that The Hunger Games will resort to this also), Marvel and its Hollywood studio partners have been able to draw on the culture and history of comic book narrative and publishing. No other form of popular literature is as malleable and re-visionable as the comic book, yet readers still accept the convoluted mythologies and the shifting appearances and histories of the characters. Marvel has applied those qualities to both its marketing and the production of The Avengers and hired, in Mr. Whedon, the person to translate that into something that makes sense.

The Avengers is not a perfect movie even if you put away all the cynical corporatization of the narrative and the idea that the whole thing or more about marketing than story or entertainment (content = property = profit). The film is probably too long, the SHIELD secret agenda subplot is too easily dismissed, and Agent Hill is a non-starter. But still, it’s amazingly fun and most amazing of all is that the studio overlords let their storytellers tell the story. I have to tip my hat, because I am now re-excited about marvel’s upcoming projects. My favourite thing about The Avengers was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk. I’ve been in awe of him ever since You Can Count On Me (2000), and the prospect of a Hulk movie that actually works because of its lead actor has me smashing things in childish excitement. Also, Iron Man 3 has a great chance of being pretty fantastic; it’s being written and directed by Shane Black. Mr. Black wrote the second best action movie of the ’80s* Lethal Weapon (1987) and is the guy who saved Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the wonderful but woefully under-seen postmodern L.A. neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). If Mr. Black is afforded the same trust and he delivers like Mr, Whedon has delivered, then the way way for Marvel properties will be a pleasure to watch.

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* The best action movie of the ’80s (and of all time) is Die Hard (1988).


Haywire (2012)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Lem Dobbs

Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton

Gina & Genre

Haywire is a one-woman show… literally. There are only two other women with lines of dialogue in the movie, and one of those women is a shop clerk who only says, “42.50”, the price of a disposable mobile phone. This is not to say that Haywire is a male-centric film; it certainly is not that. The collection of male talent arrayed against Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane are in orbit around her either as satellites or as kamikaze asteroids doomed to fall and fail by the force of her gravity and then be systematically crushed by its power. Physically Ms. Carano is sublime — as a non-professional actor she isn’t asked to do too much verbally, but she portrays Mallory as a coldly efficient warrior warmed just enough with (for her) an uncomfortable sexual allure and a comfortable (again, for her) smoldering sense of vengeance. Her physicality is wisely placed at the centre by director Steven Soderbergh, and it is exploited for its power. As a male viewer it’s difficult not to be awed by her presence, but there is never a hint of seduction in Mallory Kane. Still, her allure is palpable.

The exploitation of the physical is, of course, nothing new in the action genre, but unlike the early movies of similar male crossover athletes/actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme come immediately to mind), Ms. Carano is not treated as a piece of muscly meat. Mr. Soderbergh does take advantage of her curves, but not in the way you’d expect.The idea of eye-candy is explicitly brought out in one scene in Lem Dobbs’s (The Limey — 1999) script when Mallory bristles against playing that role for an assignment in Dublin; however, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Dobbs constantly seek to subvert the idea. Michael Fassbender offers the only vaguely erotic nudity in the film when he appears shirtless and sinewy with a towel wrapped around his waist after a shower. The point of the scene is not seduction or arousal… unless it is of the arousal of each characters’ professional curiosity; it is tension, subterfuge, and vulnerability. It is a kind of antithetical callback to an earlier scene in which Mallory is also shown right after a shower… wearing a house robe and which a towel frumpishly wrapped about her head. The expectation of Mallory’s sensuality in this scene is a subversion because the scene follows her “seduction” of Channing Tatum’s character in Barcelona. Mr. Tatum himself is often characterized by reviewers and audiences as beefcake eye-candy, but he also remains covered throughout and his sex scene with Ms. Carano is cut with her unbuckling of his belt. I look forward to more play on the idea of eye-candy in Mr. Soderbergh’s later 2012 film, Magic Mike, which also stars Mr. Tatum (this time as a male stripper).

I do think that how we look at women and men and our expectations of them is an aside for Mr. Soderbergh in this film. I think his real purpose with Haywire is something more obviously movie-is. He has, of course, crafted an action genre movie, and by doing so, is commenting on that genre.

There is nothing extraordinary about the plot of Haywire. It is every bit as implausible as any other action movie. It is not high-concept like Die Hard (1988) or the Mission: Impossible movies (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011), but neither is it low-brow like Commando (1985), Bloodsport (1988), or The Expendables (2010). The plot of this film is decidedly low-concept (double-cross + revenge), but with no smart-ass one-liners or obligatory tits-shot. The narrative is not told in a strictly linear manner, its first half is a sequence of flashbacks as Mallory relates events to Scott, her helpless tag-along witness, but it is straightforward and there are no twists. Similarly, there are no attempted undercurrents of political commentary as there are in the paranoia filled world of Jason Bourne or (lesser to Bourne) the dark action films of Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott: Black Rain (1989), G.I. Jane (1997), Body of Lies (2008), Man on Fire (2004), and Domino (2005).

In fact, I couldn’t help thinking about the Bourne films as I watched Haywire. Both share a lot of action (fights, car chases, foot chases, gunplay), but otherwise they are dissimilar, particularly in the way they are shot. The Bourne series has become known (and notorious for some) for its use of handheld camerawork and rapid editing. In those three films things are shaky because Bourne’s world and state of mind are shaky. The action and the violence spill out of the frame and into the audience’s world; perception is disrupted and comfort along with it; the technique is effective psychologically as well as in terms of narrative and character. Mr. Soderbergh’s film, however, is smooth and calculated. His always excellent camera-moves glide with the motion of the characters — the camera is controlled because the film’s central character is self-controlled. In a foot chase sequence in Barcelona, the camera tracks backward as Mallory Kane runs forward and after her quarry; the camera will never escape her and neither will the man she is chasing. She is kept centre-frame and this serves to highlight her directness. It is a simple and effective use of camera and action informing the audience of character. In close combat scenes, the staging works in a similar way. Walls form the sides of the frame and Mallory propels herself off these edges; she is kept inside the frame where her opponents have no escape from her. For a modern (post-modern?) action movie, the filmmaking is unusual in its avoidance of quick cuts, bombastic music, and disorientating staging. Instead, takes are relatively long for action sequences, fast, smooth pans are employed, music is dropped out, and the action usually unfolds in long or medium shot. Again, it’s all very simple, straightforward, effective, and entertaining.

There is nothing new in Haywire, but between Gina Carano’s forceful presence and the direct centricity of her character, there’s more than enough to satisfy both fans of action movies and fans of Mr. Soderbergh (like me). And, as a final thought, it’s too bad that undamaged women do not drive more films, action or other genres, forward.

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John Carter (2012)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon

Cast: Taylor Kitsch

Of Mars & Men

I’m just back from the cinema and my viewing of John Carter of Mars (I refuse to drop the “of Mars” since it’s a much better title and it appears at the film’s end). Here are some quick hits:

The story and imagination on display are not groundbreaking. I don’t think it matters that the source novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs provoked the imaginations of those who have brought countless science fiction and fantasy hybrids before our eyes. They got to the silver screen first and Joh Carter of Mars now looks a little generic. However… however, it is done with superb joy and craft. The bad guys are nothing to write on your blog about, but Taylor Kitsch as John Carter… well now. If a guy can invoke the aura of Kurt Russell then he’s pretty fucking brilliant as far as I’m concerned. It may have been just the beard and/or the hat, but I just could not get Mr. Russell out of my head while watching this movie. Other things, the story moves along at a good pace. It’s never too slow and it’s never too fast. It looks pretty good, too, but there’s nothing mind-blowing or groundbreaking about the visuals, either. The bookends device works brilliantly in both paradoxically tying up the movie and leaving things open for further stories. So, to sum up… goofy looking aliens, weird names, Mark Strong playing yet another generic bad guy, McNulty… it all adds up, somehow, improbably, to a pretty fun time at the cinema. I’m gonna chalk it up to the Pixar DNA of Andrew Stanton’s story-craft.

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2012: Films I’m Looking Forward To

This is a revision of a list I posted on FB a couple of weeks ago. I’ve upped the list from 10 to 15 movies and included a little bit more information about each one. Aside from the pointy end of the list, they are in a fairly loose order.

Honourable Mentions:

Two films from Terrence Malick that could show up any time between 2012 and 2032.

Voyage of Time 

Untitled Terrence Malick Project (w/ Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Javier Bardem, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two films in one year from Mr. Malick? Yeah, I’m skeptical also. Considering it took about four years for Malick to edit Days of Heaven (1978), I’m not holding my breath for either one of these films. Voyage of Time is a documentary featuring narration by Brad Pitt and Emma Thompson. Release date: TBD

13. The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Roberty Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not completely true that I’m anticipating this with the joy of watching the movie; it’s closer to the truth to say I’m looking forward to this thing being over. I’ve already committed time and money to the franchise and I feel obliged to see its culmination. That being said, I am looking forward to seeing Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk.

12. The Amazing Spider-man

Director: Mark Webb

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans

I was a big admirer of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-man, so I’m hoping this reboot of the film series is in line with the tone of those comics; however, the trailer doesn’t suggest my hope will be satisfied. Still, Andrew Garfield has been terrific in everything I’ve seen him in so far: Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009), Never Let Me Go (2010), and The Social Network (2010), and I heart Emma Stone.

11. Magic Mike

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Channing Tatum

1o. Haywire

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas

Unlike Mr. Malick, I can easily believe there will be two films from another Cinema & favourite director, Steven Soderbergh. Haywire has just been released in North America and Magic Mike should arrive this summer. An action movie and a male stripper comedy from a masterful filmmaker who never seems to repeat himself. With Mr. Soderbergh, you’re guaranteed to get a movie of the finest craftsmanship, and this year offerings each promise to have a combination of experimentation and mainstream aesthetic.

9. Looper

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt

It’s sci-fi. It’s time travel. It’s JGL. And, most importantly, it’s Rian Johnson, the writer-director behind Brick(2005) and the seemingly under-appreciated The Brothers Bloom (2008).

8. Moonrise Kingdom

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman

With each new film, I think Wes Andersson is going to disappoint me, but he never does. I’ve thought about covered Mr. Anderson in one of my classes as an exercise in identifying an auteur. I’m not completely convinced if he is, but at the very least, Mr. Anderson is one hell of a stylist and I love the world he projects onto the screen: wide angle anamorphic photography, symmetrical composition, slow-motion tracking shots, Futura font, Brit rock soundtrack treats. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was a gem, so how can any fan not look forward to the new film?

7. Brave

Director: Mark Andrews

Voice Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd

Last year was not a great one for animation and certainly not a great one for Pixar with the release of their first cinematic failure Cars 2. Brave, however, should be a return to form, and it’s the first time I’m really looking forward to a Pixar movie (I don’t know why I haven’t gotten excited about them in the past). Also, with all those Scottish accents, it’s going to be an aural feast as well as a slight Trainspotting reunion with Kelly Macdonald and Kevin McKidd. I’m going to love taking Euen to see this.

6. Prometheus

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast:  Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Wilson, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce

With Alien( 1979) and Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott provided two of the best , most influential, and most evocative science fiction films ever made; Prometheus is his return to that genre. However, both those films were a long time ago and Scott hasn’t knocked my socks off since the extended cut of Kingdom of Heaven (2005). But even with those misgivings, a non-Alien Alien prequel that promises to solve the mystery of the Space Jockey and it’s got Fassbender!

5. Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock

Alfonso Cuarón hasn’t directed a feature film since 2006’s excellent Children of Men, but he’s back late this year with the third science fiction movie to make my list (not counting super-hero movies). Mr. Cuarón films are technically experimental and expressive, but also he also creates tone with great editing and distinctive, effective use of colour palette (Great Expectations – 1998 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban – 2004). Gravity has long been in development and has had a revloving door of female leads cast before Sandra Bullock was settled upon. I’m no fan of Ms. Bullock, but she is not without presence. To counter this misgiving is the presence of Mr. Clooney who I like as an actor and a movie star.

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis

A return to Middle-Earth. I don’t really need to say much more. The trailer really had me. Martin Freeman looks perfectly cast as Bilbo and I trust Mr. Jackson and co. to handle the transition of The Hobbit into their LotR universe without too much fuss. Plus, singing Dwarves!!!!

3. Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Christoph Waltz, Michael Kenneth Williams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

I don’t know a sing film directed by Mr. Tarantino that has not gotten better with subsequent viewings. I haven’t always been a huge fan, but I have always been interested, and this director’s love of cinema (particularly pop cinema) is well-known. With dialogue, violence, genre, music, camera, and casting, Mr. Tarantino plays right into my wheelhouse. I’ll be fighting to keep my expectations and anticipation in check all the way to December; it’s going to be a long year.

2. The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Liam Neeson

It’s a rather obvious choice right near the end of my list, but, who cares. The Dark Knight (2008) was a terrifically satisfying film on many levels and in many ways, and Mr. Nolan continues to be a favourite director. If I have one overwhelming apprehension about this movie, it’s in his casting of the female lead. Mr. Nolan doesn’t have a good record of either creating memorable or casting female characters. Some of his films come perilously close to being sabotaged by this weakness, such as Batman Begin (2006), The Prestige (2006), and Inception (2010). Anne Hathaway has turned in nice performances in the past, but none of her recent work has been memorable at all. If a lot of the movie relies on the Catwowan character and her relationship with Batman/Bruce Wayne, then things could easily enter Katie Holmes territory. To counter this apprehension, though, is the enormous presence of Tom Hardy.

1. Damsels in Distress

Director: Whit Stillman

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton

Here’s the film I am absolutely most looking forward to in 2012. It’s been 13 years since the last Whit Stillman picture, and I was beginning to fear that he was gone forever. My fears have been allayed. Thank goodness! Greta Gerwig is an indie darling and I recently saw Analeigh Tipton for the first time in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and thought she was one of the best things about that movie. The only sadness I feel about the release of Damsels in Distress is that Chris Eigeman isn’t in it.

Who is Whit Stillman? Metropolitan (1989). Barcelona (1994). The Last Days of Disco (1998). Clever, endearing, smart, talkie little movies that nobody ever goes to see.

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