Notes On A Film: The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble)

The content of this blog should indicate that this film was made for someone like me, who loves films and comics (although I’ve never been a huge Avengers fan), so whatever I have to say will come out biased. However, no matter how much I geeked out watching this film and how entertaining and awesome it was (it’s probably the most enjoyable time I’ve had in a cinema since Inception), I hope that this doesn’t invalidate my views.

The first thing to say is that it is impressive that this film exists: as a superhero comic book fan, the idea of a team-up/crossover is a tantalising idea; having the separate superheroes together in one film is an achievement in itself. There have been good films with superhero teams before (with X2 as the leader of the pack in that regards) but it’s different to take individual heroes from their own successful films and unite them in something that doesn’t make a mess of it because of the difficulty of the mix. The build-up with the individual films (Iron Man, Thor and Captain America were very good; Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk were slightly less good) heightened anticipation but meant that the blending of them could prove problematic. This is not the case: this film is everything you hope for in an Avengers film.

Everything in this film works. The individual heroes are believable on their own in the context of the movie and they are believable as a team – the movie has a plausible reason for their combination (aliens are coming to destroy the Earth) and brings them together in totally plausible fashion, with great character interaction, emotional bits, sufficient backstory to understand the conflicts, fantastic action and lots of great lines. The film is 140 minutes of pure entertainment from beginning to end (and mid-credits, which had me laughing out loud with geek glee; I can’t say anything about after the credits because non-US audiences have yet to receive it); I enjoyed it so much I wanted to see it again as soon as possible, just to relive the joy, but also to see the great moments peppered throughout. There are so many great moments that will make you smile or laugh, but I won’t detail them – you should enjoy them yourself for the first time and I won’t take that away from you.

Marvel has done a lot of hard work to get the film to where it is but there is one man who is responsible for the greatness of this movie: Joss Whedon. Yes, the film uses the basic plot of the first storyline of The Ultimates (which was just Mark Millar updating the Avengers); yes, Zak Penn has a story credit; yes, there are lots of other people involved in the making of a film. However, Whedon is the one who has crafted the beautiful blend that is this film. The deft handling of a large cast is a trademark of his (this is a rare skill, giving all the characters equal amount of quality time, something that regular comic book creators fail at with team titles); the great dialogue works in both the action scenes and the non-action scenes; and the fact that the female characters are so strong in an excessively male film (Warner must be kicking themselves for stopping the Whedon Wonder Woman movie). The Black Widow is handled brilliantly, given great moments of smartness and ability, with a depth to her character that was a revelation. The short scene with Pepper Potts shows her as a smart, funny and capable person, just through dialogue, and it was a delight to watch. The dialogue is whip-smart throughout – Tony Stark gets some of the best lines, suffused with the trademark pop culture gags that Whedon handles with ease – and the actors look like they’re having a blast with the talking scenes. Robert Downey Jr slips back in Tony Stark with ease, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are back in solid superhero mode, Scarlett Johansson was great as the Black Widow, Jeremy Renner was good as Hawkeye (Whedon made me think that Hawkeye was a good character, something I didn’t think was possible) and Tom Hiddleston was having a ball as Loki (I couldn’t believe he got to say ‘mewling quim’ – hilarious). But, as reports have said, it is the excellent Mark Ruffalo and the motion-capture Hulk who steal the show. Whedon has done a fantastic job of capturing the character of the Hulk and why we like him, using him judiciously until needed and then turning the dial up to eleven; it’s an unalloyed delight and provides the two biggest laughs of the film (and this is a film full of funny lines).

It’s not all talking and funny lines; there is plenty of action along the way (Whedon balances the rhythm of little action pieces in between the conversations and the plot), until the final third of the film is one big beautifully choreographed fight scene. The CGI is great (the Ruffalo-based Hulk works really well), although I can’t speak for the 3D because I watched in good old-fashioned 2D, the violence is explosive, the characters act and interact in exactly the right way and Whedon slips in action banter in the right way. It looks fantastic, as would be expected for something with this amount of money behind it, and it’s a joy to witness.

Joss Whedon must be a happy man. Not because he has written and directed what will be one of the biggest films of the year, but because he got to geek out and put Marvel’s superheroes together on the silver screen for the first time and have them do really cool stuff. And he did it really, really well. It’s quite possibly the most perfect comic book movie yet.

Rating: DAVE (DAVID for the comic book geek in me)

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film – Captain America: The First Avenger

It may not be news to you, but I didn’t know that Joe Johnston was won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his work as part of the team on Raiders of the Lost Ark. This fact certainly explains a lot about the feel of this origin story for Captain America: a serial adventure with a period setting but a modern sensibility. It doesn’t achieve the heights of Raiders, but it’s a lot of fun with the right tone needed for the translation of Marvel’s sensibility towards World War II from comic book to screen.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I have trouble accepting the character of Captain America, but he’s never really worked for me (with the exception of Ed Brubaker’s run, but I’ve always felt that the book deals with Steve Rogers, not Captain America per se). Part of it is the time-specific nature of the concept – the ones set during the war seem to make the most sense. This could be one of the reasons why this film works: it’s Captain America in a time where he fits. The classic origin tale is told: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a puny individual who is unfit to join the army, which doesn’t stop him from trying five different times (illegally using different towns in each application), until he’s noticed by German scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who thinks he would be the perfect candidate for his experiment – creating a super soldier using his scientific serum and vita rays (as supplied by Howard Stark, Marvel doing what it does best by creating a coherent universe with characters popping up in different films but maintaining consistency). The experiment is a success, and Rogers is turned into the hyper-muscled version we know; however, the film takes a nice twist with the origin story and turns him into a PR tool for selling war bonds, which allows for the slightly original costume to be introduced and the badge-shaped shield. They even have the comic book with Captain America punching Hitler on the cover as propaganda for the kids, which was a nice touch.

This section of the film flows well: Evans is really good as both the weakling (the CGI to make him look like so puny is really impressive, with only a few sections where it looks a bit ropey) and the pumped-up hero; he was good fun as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four films, but he plays this character completely differently and does a very good job of selling the person of Steve Rogers. There is good support from Tommy Lee Jones as the Colonel in charge of the operation, Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter and Tucci as Erskine. This section also nicely sets up the idea that Rogers is the right guy to become Captain America because he’s a genuinely heroic and decent person: he never gives up, he does the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and he’s self-sacrificing (throwing himself on a dummy grenade to protect others in the pre-serum sequence). It is summed up perfectly in the response to the question from Erskine, ‘Do you want to kill Nazis?’ – Steve replies, ‘I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.’ It should also be pointed out that the film is rather funny – there are some good lines that reminded me of the humour in Raiders – and this adds to the enjoyment of the film.

The other section of the film is the bad guy: the Red Skull. A fanatical German, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is head of Hydra, the research and technology department of the Nazi war effort, who underwent an imperfect version of Erskine’s super soldier formula, making him strong but also giving him his red skull. He obtains the Tesseract (last seen in the film Thor) to power his weapons, with which he is going to take on the world – he has Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Young) creating advanced tech for him, so there is the comic book mix of futuristic design in the middle of the 1940s. If you’ve read any of the comic books, you can handle this fantastical version of World War II as portrayed in Marvel comics – the stories are set in the horror of the actual war but don’t dishonour the events by basing these superhero adventures in the exact same details, hence fighting Hydra, who are more Nazi than the Nazis. Again, the tone of the film gets this balance right so that you can go with it instead of wondering about the incongruity of laser guns and laser tanks in World War II. It’s also helped by Weaving’s performance as the Red Skull; I swear that he sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger at times, which probably helped.

There are a lot of things that Marvel has done right in this film in adapting from the comics. Bucky is no longer the 16-year-old sidekick in a uniform, but a friend of Steve’s from Brooklyn who enlisted and was subsequently saved by Steve and then became a member of Steve’s team (effectively Sgt Fury’s Howling Commandos, from the comics but with some changes: Dum Dum Dugan [the moustached one], Gabriel Jones [the African American], Jim Morita [the Japanese American] and Jacques Dernier [the French resistance one] are there, but the British one is now James Montgomery Falsworth, who was Union Jack in the comic books and wasn’t part of the Commandos). The fate of Bucky is also kept (I guess the cinema universe isn’t ready for the Winter Soldier) but not as part of the final battle with the Red Skull as in the comics. There is also a nice Easter egg for fans in the form of the Golden Age Human Torch, seen encased in a glass cylinder in the World’s Fair where Steve encounters Erskine, with the name of Prof. Phineas Horton above. The development of the linking thread of the Tesseract from Thor through this film (I presume it’s going to be the MacGuffin for the Avengers film) and the setting up of Hydra as a serious and continuous threat in the Marvel universe are handled well. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was the post-script to the film: after Steve has sacrificed himself at the end of the film (if you consider that a spoiler, can I ask what are you doing reading this blog?), we get a footnote showing Steve waking up and discovering he’s in the future (and introduced to Nick Fury) – the scene just sits there as an unnecessary addendum after the moving climax. It felt like the beginning of The Avengers movie instead of the end of the Captain America film; the post-credits sequence didn’t click the way the other Marvel post-credits sequences have – it’s more of an actual teaser trailer, instead of the usual (and subtler) connecting scene.

Overall, I enjoyed Captain America: it’s a good film but it doesn’t have that X-factor that makes it special (such as the first Iron Man). The action sequences suffer occasionally from CGI imperfections, perhaps due to the 3D – I saw it in 2D, naturally, so that might have had an effect – but they are competently handled and enjoyable, which overcame my minor niggles. In some respects, this was the easier proposition of a Captain America adventure in World War II – Joss Whedon will have the tougher job in The Avengers when he has to make the character work in the present day. In the scale of this summer’s superhero blockbusters, it is miles better than Green Lantern, slightly better than X-Men: First Class, and not quite as good as Thor.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Green Lantern

Pity poor Green Lantern – despite the recent successful revival by Geoff Johns, he’s always been a B-lister; now that he’s in cinemas, it seems that the entire weight of comic book movies is resting on his shoulders and he’s taking the blame for it all. All for a film that isn’t as bad as everyone seems to be saying it is, but which isn’t a good film either. The fact is that the film just sits there, not achieving the enjoyable levels of Iron Man or Thor but not sinking to the awful lows of Steel or Catwoman or Batman and Robin. There are some good bits but it never sings, it never flies (if you’ll pardon the punning metaphor).

The problem appears to be a dichotomy between the two halves of the film, and the script can’t seem to make up its mind which side it wants to favour. Favouring the Marvel Studio approach to bring the comic book characters to the silver screen, the film spends half of its time on Earth with Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and his interaction with humans – he’s a test pilot with Ferris Aircraft who screws things up for his colleagues, he’s had former romantic interaction with Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), there’s a sub-plot involving Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins) and his scientist son Hector (Peter Sarsgaard) – but the film starts out with a voiceover explanation of the Guardians of Oa and the Green Lantern Corps, and sends Jordan out into space and to Oa receive induction from Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) and training from Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), which only lasts two minutes before Sinestro (Mark Strong) steps in to make Jordan feel inadequate and want to leave the Corps. There is also the threat of Parallax, this huge entity of fear who destroys planets – why have both the small Earth-bound story of Jordan handling his fear and fighting the Parallax-infected Hector Hammond when you’ve got the prospect of the entire galaxy and thousands of alien Green Lanterns at your disposal?

I wanted the aliens and outer space – the CGI for Tomar-Re and Kilowog was impressive, and it was wonderful to see such scope in a blockbuster film, including the presence of so many different aliens and the vista of the home planet of the slightly creepy Guardians. I wanted more of the Green Lanterns fighting Parallax in space, and I wanted the development of the Sinestro–yellow ring storyline that was hinted at in the mid-credits sequence (and I have to agree with everyone that the way this was played in the film made no sense whatsoever, and ignored the character development for Sinestro in the rest of the movie). The ‘Hal has to overcome his fears to become the Green Lantern’ storyline seemed so small and minor in comparison, despite the best efforts of Reynolds, who delivers some of the comedy lines very effectively. This section could have been dealt with quickly and then we could have got more action. A prime example of the smallness hobbling the ability of the film to soar is the way that the Carol Ferris is used as the reason to have a fight between Hector Hammond and Hal Jordan – Hector’s unrequited love was really silly and rather sad to see it used as a device in the plot. This lack of logical narrative was also a problem – see this post at Topless Robot for the best snarky dissection of the storyline of the film – as if the filmmakers thought that people would understand and accept the way the narrative develops because they do the same in the comics (why exactly does Hector get telepathy and telekinesis because he’s been infected by Parallax?), and no amount of spectacle could compensate.

It’s not all awful – the actors are mostly good in their roles (Mark Strong is always good value), there are some funny lines, it’s nice to see that Carol recognises Jordan when he’s in his Green Lantern costume and mask (the CGI costume wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be based on the trailer – well, in the 2D version I saw; I’ve no idea what it looks like in 3D – but the mask never works in the film), and it’s great just to have a big blockbuster about the Green Lanterns. However, the film lacks visual flair and energy – Martin Campbell might have done good jobs on The Mask Of Zorro and Casino Royale, but he does a workman-like job here; this lack of imagination is evident in the manifesting of the Green Lantern energy through the ring, particularly the scene where Hal saves the crashing helicopter by constructing a race track to save it. This means that Green Lantern the film is a very flat experience, which is sad because I would really like to see the sequel where Hal Jordan and the Green Lanterns fight the Sinestro Corps in a great big CGI war in space.

Rating: DA

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: X-Men: First Class

It’s been nearly two weeks since I saw X-Men: First Class, which is perhaps an indication of the conflict I’ve had in compiling my thought about it. Part of it is to do with my years of reading the Chris Claremont X-Men, part of it is some parts of the film itself, and another part of it is the general reaction to the film in the press. To sum up, if you don’t want to read my jumbled ramblings: it is a generally good film, with some very good bits, but it’s not great (despite what current X-Factor writer Peter David might think), mostly due to various problems with the story.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are great as Magneto and Charles Xavier respectively. Fassbender is cool and tough as the spy-with-superpowers going after Nazis (very James Bond, but even cooler); McAvoy is charming, funny (he gets some good lines) and has the right sense of optimism and amazement in mutant powers. Together, their relationship is the beating heart of the film and it would have been great to see the entire film devoted to them alone.

The film is rather groovy. The reference to Bond is appropriate, not just the 1960s setting: the clothes, the production design, the globetrotting (Oxford, Argentina, Russia, Cuba), Sebastian Shaw as a classic Bond villain – the various secret headquarters (the submarine is a particularly nice touch), the cool hench-people and a silly plot to destroy the world. Everyone looks good, although the female attire perhaps goes too far, and there is a nice feeling of historical authenticity, even with the unfortunate attitude towards women. The action is good as well – the scene with Magneto in Argentina was particularly badass – and it flows at a good pace. And three cheers for not being in 3D.

Can I just say: greatest cameo ever, even if it doesn’t make complete sense. I laughed out loud, I’m not afraid to admit.

There are lots of nice touches, and the film makes sure it fits well with the first two X-Men films (Bryan Singer, producer on this film, seems to have a thing about making a new film based on only the first two films in a series, if this and Superman Returns are anything to go by) – the relationships between various characters, the development of Cerebro, the Blackbird, showing how Xavier ended up in a wheelchair, Magneto’s helmet. It is also unashamedly comic booky – Banshee flies on his stretchy wing things, the CGI visualisation of Shaw’s absorption of energy, Emma Frost’s diamond form, Darwin visibly mutating to display his adaptive power, the costumes, Magneto raising a submarine from the sea, the whirlwind powers of Shaw henchman Riptide (although he’s not named in the film, or even speak).

Time to talk about some of the things that weren’t so good. Although I enjoyed the presence of so many characters from the X-Men universe (apart from those mentioned, the film has Havok, Beast, Mystique, Angel, Azazel, Moira MacTaggart [albeit an American CIA agent instead of a Scottish doctor]), there are too many characters in the film. If it had been more about Xavier and Magneto, even if they were facing against Shaw on their own and realising that a team is needed, it would have been a tighter narrative. Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman do a great job of including all the characters and giving their moments, but it diffuses the story and loses focus.

The story itself, with an epic scale that revolves around the Cuban missile crisis, seemed implausible – even with a telepath, I couldn’t see how one man could influence the specific individuals to bring the world to the brink of war. It’s a classic Bond villain plot, with the big idea with a stupid reason, but that shouldn’t be an excuse.

The large cast means that few of the cast stand out. January Jones is a non-entity as Emma Frost – bland, looking very uncomfortable in the costume, and I really don’t like the diamond form (I didn’t like it when God-of-all-comics Grant Morrison introduced it and I like it even less here, where it looks silly). Riptide is a pointless appendage in the film; it’s like he was only kept around for precipitating the final action sequence. The actors playing Havok, Banshee, Darwin and Angel don’t make an impact (Angel is played by Zoe Kravitz, the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, so she knows something about good genetics), and I feel sorry for Jason Flemyng for such a non-role as Azazel. Jennifer Lawrence, who was so good in Winter’s Bone, is fine as the young Mystique but seems flat here. Kevin Bacon doesn’t really work as Shaw – he doesn’t bring the menace necessary for the role.

The biggest problem I had was the inadvertent racism. Darwin, a black man, is the first die in the film. Not only that but he goes out in such a lame way – he is a character whose power is to adapt to any danger, but he is killed by Shaw putting energy in his mouth (Ed Brubaker, his creator, must be a little upset about that). In the same scene, the only character in the proto-X-Men to turn evil is the only black woman. I’m not saying that, to address the years of racism inflicted upon black people, all black characters in film should be good guys and not die; however, in a film that is an allegory for racism and is filled with nearly all white characters, the filmmakers made a huge error in their uncalculated use of Darwin and Angel.

The other things that niggled were minor: the hands-as-feet mutation of Hank McCoy was very silly; Riptide having whirlwinds coming out of his hands looked very stupid for some reason; the lack of sense behind Emma Frost’s diamond form; I don’t like that Sebastian Shaw is one of the first mutants in the film continuity, or that Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summer is not the first pupil of Xavier, but the continuity of the Fox X-Men films is quite messy anyway (e.g. the age of Xavier in this film and Wolverine: Origins, or the presence of various versions of Cyclops and Emma Frost in that film), so I guess I should get over myself. The film also suffers from the ‘more characters means a better superhero film’ problem of late (e.g. Spider-Man 3, or Wolverine: Origins, which seemed counterintuitive when examining the story of a loner hero). These niggles also extend to the promotion of the film – the original teaser trailer was a terrible indication of the film and the terrible Photoshopping of the posters are an embarrassment. However, the film is fun and worth a watch overall, even if Thor is still the current leader for best comic book superhero film of 2011.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

I saw The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (or, to use its French title, Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec) on Free Comic Book Day because I thought it was appropriate to see a film based on a comic book. The fact that I had never read the original graphic albums by Jacques Tardi – or, to be honest, even heard of them – didn’t come into it, especially when the film was written and directed by Luc Besson.

Besson may have spent the past decade writing/producing slightly racist Euro thrillers starring a famous face, but he is the man who gave us Leon; this means I can forgive him practically anything. This is not only his first live-action film in a while but also supposedly the last film he will direct (if he sticks to his 10-film rule), so I had to see this film in the cinema.

The film is adapted from two of the graphic albums (Adèle and the Beast and Mummies on Parade): in Paris in 1911, a pterodactyl has been brought to life from an egg hatched in the Museum of Natural History, and is causing havoc; intrepid reporter Adèle (Louise Bourgoin) is in Egypt to retrieve the mummy of a Pharaoh’s doctor to help her sister. The two are connected. It’s a fun romp, mixing a female Indiana Jones with more overtly over-the-top fantastical elements. Besson brings it all to life with energy and style – Paris of 1911 is lavishly recreated, the story is silly in a fun way, all the male characters look exactly like characters from the books come to life (they are all caricatures, with large faces and big noses), and Bourgoin is charming as the central character: resourceful, plucky, unable to take ‘no’ for an answer.

It’s not perfect: the CGI is occasionally a little ropey (particularly when Adèle rides the pterodactyl); the film is overly long at nearly two hours; and the French sense of humour loses something in translation, especially when it comes to the police inspector given the task of capturing the pterodactyl. Also, the epilogue that blatantly shouts ‘sequel’ seems a little silly and optimistic. However, the film is enjoyable and it feels like the graphic albums come to life in a very cinematic fashion, and I’m glad that Besson has taken time out from writing the likes of The Transporter and Taxi films to bring his talents and production company on a fun adaptation of a comic book.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Thor

I went to see Thor last week (before it came out in the US, which makes me smile), and I saw it in 2D (because it wasn’t filmed in 3D, so it looked better and I didn’t have to pay unnecessary money for the privilege), so this isn’t a review but a collection of thoughts on the film.

Topline: Thor is really enjoyable, and it’s a good Marvel film about a character I thought would have difficulty making the transition to the big screen. It’s fun, it’s action-packed, it’s big scale, yet it’s about character and small moments and good performances.

I was worried that the mixture of Norse mythology and superheroic action wouldn’t be able to work – in can be tough in the comics, let alone transferring to the specific requirements of a blockbuster action film – and I didn’t think that they could achieve the balance between the theatricality of gods and the demands of what we expect from a Marvel film (after Iron Man set the bar unexpectedly high). However, Kenneth Brannagh has done a great job of combining all the elements into a satisfying mix. I think the reason for this is that he is an actor’s director, and he got some really good performances from the cast.

Chris Hemsworth is a great Thor – his physique has been toned to suitably godlike proportions (reminding me of when Walt Simonson drew him in civvies early in his marvellous run on the character) – but he is also impressive as the character: he is noble and arrogant to start, but he shows a great touch for light comedy in the scenes on Earth, as well as the necessary gravitas when the character needs to show some emotional range. Tom Hiddlestone is great as Loki (Brannagh acted with him on Wallander, so he knew his abilities); as someone who knows that Loki is a deceiver, I was watching his performance for the signs, and he plays the character perfectly, not as a one-dimensional villain, but as something much more subtle, with lots of layers to everything he says or does. The others are good – Anthony Hopkins is a good Odin (there is a Shakespearean quality to the story of Odin, Thor and Loki, and Brannagh brings this out in the scenes between them), and Natalie Portman shows off a lightness of touch to her Jane Foster (now an astrophysicist, not a nurse) that I thought she had lost, especially if you had seen her in Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. The fun performance comes from Kat Dennings as an intern who gets all the best comedy lines, who is only matched by Hemmings for pricked pomposity and slapstick.

The script is really good (especially because it doesn’t use the pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue in the comics) – it handles the epic of Asgard (which looks fantastic and suitably grand), the darkness of the realm of the Frost Giants, the action scenes (such as Thor taking on the Frost Giants with only Sif, Fandrall, Hogun, Volstagg and Loki, or the fantastic face-off between Thor and the Destroyer – seeing Thor whirling his hammer and flying and bringing the lightning was fantastic), and the integration with the Marvel film universe. Apart from the presence of Agent Coulson of SHIELD, there is an elliptical reference to Bruce Banner, a cameo for Hawkeye, the obligatory post-credits scene setting up the next film, the required Stan Lee appearance (JM Straczynski and Walt Simonson also appear); there was even a nice in-joke about Donald Blake. It was a good balance that didn’t interfere with the story, which is classic origin material, but the origin story is always a good narrative (which is why it is something that is revisited so often in the comics) and this one works a treat.

Those were my thoughts, but I had to tell you my girlfriend’s (semi-joking) thought: Thor is a chick flick. She has a point, and there is symbolism to back it up. In essence, Thor the film can be seen as the impotence of a man who is unable to use his very phallic ‘weapon’ until he admits that he has emotions for someone else other than himself. The fact that Mjolnir is a blatant Freudian symbol that is the source of Thor’s power, and that he has to overcome his ‘Thorishness’ (i.e. his male arrogance and inability to think of others apart from himself) in order to use Mjolnir again, seems to have been deliberately employed to highlight this. However, I can assure you that Thor is not a chick flick; it is a very entertaining superhero film, and I’d happily see it again in the cinema.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: RED

I can’t believe the cast list for an adaptation of a Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner comic book: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine. And room for Julian McMahon. How on earth did this film attract such a collection of well-known faces? The director, Robert Schwentke, must have some allure of which I am unaware – the most famous film he’s done is probably last year’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, so I don’t think it can be that.

RED is a silly but enjoyable action comedy film. Loosely based on the comic, it sees Bruce Willis as a retired black-ops CIA agent whose life is quiet in suburbia until his house is attacked in the night by a hit squad. Knowing that his phone has been tapped, he goes to the only person he has been talking to, Mary-Louise Parker, a customer service agent who works for Willis’ pension office, knowing that she will be in trouble if he is. Together, they go on the run, Parker somewhat reluctantly at first, as Willis gets the old team back (Malkovich, Freeman, Mirren) to sort out the problem of who is after him, which brings them into conflict with Urban’s CIA agent who has been ordered to hunt him down.

RED (an actual acronym, standing for Retired: Extremely Dangerous, stamped on Willis’ file) is a nice blend of action set pieces and character comedy. It’s funny to see Mirren shooting a massive machine gun, the chemistry between Willis and Parker is charming, Malkovich is suitably nutty, even Borgnine and Dreyfuss have fun with their roles. The action is mostly fun, although Schwentke is not a natural director of fight scenes and gunplay – the scene where we see Willis use his skills for the first time, it shows aftermath and not ability; there is a certain rhythm to the action but it cuts far too much to display believability in the supposed talents of the people involved, using edits to invoke the drama rather than the action itself. The final resolution scene involves too much organisation and detail that is skimmed over in the rapidity of the occurrence; however, the film is entertaining and silly and exciting and a passable way to spend some time but nothing more.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

Breaking my routine by talking about a film I have seen in the same week – I thought I should get in to the habit. The other reason is that this film has playing again and again in my head, providing me with continued joy after the credits rolled.

I’ve only read one of the Scott Pilgrim books by Bryan Lee O’Malley (see here) and, while I enjoyed a lot of aspects of it, I didn’t love it the way a lot of people do. However, I really loved the film, I can’t wait to have it on DVD so I can watch it again to get all the jokes, and it makes me want to go back and read the rest of the series. Does this make me a hypocrite?

The story is slender: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old slacker in Toronto who is the bassist in a band, is immature and dumb but somehow endearing, who is chastely dating a 17-year-old school girl called Knives Chau as a rebound a year after the painful end of another relationship. He sees and falls for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Wanstead), an American, but doesn’t immediately break up with Knives, and discovers that he has to fight Ramona’s seven evil exes if he is going to date her. But the bare description of the plot isn’t what the film is about: it is a joyous explosion of visual delight streaming across your eyes and stimulating your synapses with wonderful information overload, leaving you giddy with happiness and fun.

Just about everything about this film is perfect for it: the cast, the humour, the computer game fight scenes, the plethora of jump-cut gags (like Scott putting a hat on when people comment on his hair), the silliness, the over-the-top-ness of it all. I’m sure the music was good, which is important for a film which is about a band trying to get a record deal and interacting with lots of musical types, but the sound at the cinema I watched it was really bad, so I can’t be sure. The great thing about the film is the way that it is able to capture the unreal sensibility that feels fabulously real: Scott has these fights that defy gravity, punching opponents into piles of coins, able to do martial arts even though he’s a skinny dweeb, flaming swords coming from his chest, but you don’t question it because Edgar Wright sells it so completely.

Wright is the perfect director for this: his kinetic camerawork, the ability to cope with humour and action and surreality and drama and conversation, adding caption boxes to explain aspects of the story, yet keeping it all real. The ghost of Spaced hovers in the background – the training on that series was perfect for this film. As Simon Pegg tweeted, ‘It is the closest thing you will ever see to a third series of Spaced.’ It’s so manically edited, Wright needed two editors on the film – they must have been exhausted – but it’s not because he’s trying to hide any problems with the film, but rather highlight the magic and hyper-reality of the feelings of the characters, as the computer game visuals reflect the connection to something more real for them.

I could list all of my favourite bits (Chris Evans as Lucas Lee and the trailers for his films; Brandon Routh as a vegan who has gained psychic powers because through his dietary choice; Ramona fighting with a massive hammer; any of the fight scenes) but that doesn’t do the film justice. There are some weaker aspects – I didn’t get quite the same enjoyment from musical fight scenes as the computer game ones; I thought that the condensing of the story turned the focus entirely on Scott, meaning Ramona isn’t as fully realised as in the book – but that’s just the nitpicky of a geeky type. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a funny, kinetic, exciting, even moving film about growing up and taking responsibility, told in the style of a computer game-addled brain. In a good way.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: The Losers

I really wanted to love the film of The Losers because I really love the comic book by Andy Diggle and Jock (I surprised myself when I looked for a post on my blog where I praised the series, but there isn’t one; I shall have to remedy that in the future). Because the comic book was an intelligent blockbuster action film done well in comic book form, primed and ready for adaptation to the big screen. However, I don’t think the film did the source justice.

There is a lot that the film gets right. The actors playing The Losers are a perfect fit, and Chris Evans gets special respect for having the same hair, facial hair and glasses as his comic book incarnation. And Patrick Jason was fantastically over the top as the villain Max, even if the film seemed to neuter him in comparison to his comic book counterpart. There is a strong sense of a team, and the banter is good. The action is well handled and exciting, even if the ‘motorbike flying through the air and being shot and blown up’ seemed a bit silly – the director, Slyvain White, does a good job but has a slightly annoying habit of throwing in camera moves and tricks that make the film look like a pop video at times. There is also the joy of seeing Jock’s art in the film, when we are first introduced to The Losers on the mission that will change their lives – that was pretty cool, I have to admit.

The film takes a lot from the book (including the scene where Jensen uses his fingers to shoot the security guards, which is almost shot-for-shot from the pages of the book), and doesn’t change too much – I think the film-makers were a little scared of Aisha character (Zoe Saldana) and her Afghanistan origin, so went with a South American version, and dropped the CIA link; they also went with Pooch having a pregnant wife instead of young children. Essentially, it is a film of part of the book; I would have preferred the entirety of the series had been made into the film, along with the ending, because the ending here was too happy for me (and too saccharine for my liking, especially considering they are supposed to be in hiding, and feels like the end of an American cop show where they have to finish on a laugh).

The main problem I had was that the book was cool AND smart, whereas the film focuses on the cool alone; yes, there was cool stuff in the book but Diggle had put a lot of work into the research behind the story and it showed in the authentic feel and the reality it conveyed. The film doesn’t worry about, instead making sure it looks cool. I think that robs the film of some of what makes it unique, rather than an A-Team rip-off that a lot of reviewers thought it was. The film is still enjoyable and well-done entertainment, but it wasn’t as good as the book showed that a film like this could be.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Iron Man 2

Another topical detour from catching up on films I saw in the cinema in January and comic books I have bought, to talk about something that converges on two of my obvious loves: films and comics. And nothing to do with the fact that it hasn’t come out in America yet …

I really enjoyed the first Iron Man film, which came out of nowhere to be the fun superhero blockbuster. Robert Downey Jr was perfect as Tony Stark, the Iron Man armour looked fantastic, and Jon Favreau surprised us all by directing an extremely enjoyable and entertaining film. So, to say we were looking forward to it was an understatement, and there was a level of hype attached that it could never hope to attain.

This sequel is still a lot of fun but it doesn’t achieve the same levels of quality and enjoyment as the first. It’s not awful by any measure – Downey Jr is still ideal as Stark, all charming swagger and arrogant confidence and mercurial charisma, the CGI looks good in the action scenes, and the sense of fun and banter between the actors remains. But the film is rather long, with not enough action and the action that does occur harks back to the climax of the first film.

The film does try to maintain a difficult balance of a movie that is trying to be an actual Marvel comic book – it’s setting up The Avengers film with references and appearances from Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury (who doesn’t play it as mysteriously as before, turning him into just another Sam Jackson role, including his usual dialogue delivery tics), hints at Captain America and Thor, and still finding time to include ‘Agent Romanov’ (Scarlett Johansson does a good job, and there is a particularly good action scene with her in full costume). That’s a tough job for a film, trying to be its own entity as well as a set-up for the rest of the Marvel universe movies, and it doesn’t always succeed.

There are some silly bits, like driving a Bentley the wrong way up the Monaco Grand Prix, and although they give Mickey Rourke’s villain character good motivation, I still think that Whiplash looks stupid; Garry Shandling looks like his face is some sort of Rick Baker make-up in the middle of a biological reaction that is causing his face to swell to a balloon; the relationship between Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) doesn’t have the same vibe as the first, and I’d wished they’d kept the same ‘will they, won’t they?’ atmosphere.

But perhaps I’m just being picky – you can still enjoy Iron Man 2 as a fun piece of superhero cinematic entertainment, never going too dark to ruin the mood but still with enough subject matter so that it doesn’t descend into fluff, but it’s just not as good as the original.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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