Zac Efron Just Got Hotter

If the best critical praise you can find about your movie is “The leading man is marginally more attractive than previously thought!”, then don’t go expecting Citizen Kane. Heck, if that is literally the most positive thing written, don’t even go expecting Love Actually. Warner Bros’ perfunctory marketing strategy for The Lucky One, Zac Efron’s latest ladyheart-flutterer, appears to be taking its cues from hotornot.com. Good luck with that, guys!

Via The Lucky One trailer, and every bus ad in London, apparently.

New Dark Knight Rises image reveals sock-stuffing

“It’s all natural, I swear!” – Batman, yesterday.

Via Empire magazine.

Piggy

piggy

As reliable and grimly enduring as an East End boozer, there will always be the gritty British crime movie. Even after twelve months of some of the most imaginative homegrown output in recent memory, the appetite for cockneys getting into right old barneys shows no sign of abating.

And so with a sense of weary inevitability comes Piggy, a revenge thriller labouring under the hope that graphic depictions of violence are a decent substitute for characterisation or plot. It’s not devastatingly terrible, but with such a singular lack of imagination and a grisly approach to portraying murder, it’s hard to see the appeal.

Joe (former footballer Martin Compston) is a quiet loner who keeps himself to himself. When his older brother (Kill List’s Neil Maskell) is killed by a drunken gang, Joe is befriended by the enigmatic but unhinged Piggy (Paul Anderson), apparently a family friend looking to take Joe under his wing.

Using moody lighting and an under-saturated palette, first-time director Keiron Hawkes initially manages to capture the intense loneliness of city life, but stumbles before he can amount to anything meaningful. We yield instead to grisly murder after grisly murder, as Joe exacts an ugly vengeance for his brother’s death under Piggy’s mentorship, both curiously donning pig masks as they work.

It is a little baffling why our sadistic chums go about their murderous ways with snout noses. Ineffective both as a disguise and a scare tactic, they send proceedings into absurdity when the intention is sinister. If this aspect was supposed to be the film’s USP, it will surely appeal only to pig fetishists and novelty mask manufacturers.

More importantly, it’s hard to understand why the previously docile Joe decides to comply to Piggy’s ruthless violence and harder still to actually empathise with anyone – anyone at all. A big reveal at the end attempts to address this, but it’s too late – we don’t care, and the eleventh hour dash to re-frame the film as a Fight Club-esque psychological thriller is too little, too late.

It’s always encouraging to see any efforts to revive such a horribly overcrowded genre, but Piggyis not the film to do it. If it spent half as much time and money on the script as it had on the gory prosthetics, there might be something to salvage. As it is, they should have gone the whole hog and dressed the murderers up in full pig regalia – at least then, there might have been a few snorts of laughter, rather than a bag of old scratchings.

Originally published on MovieScope Magazine.

The Avengers (And That’s What I’m Calling It – You Hear Me, Marvel Marketing Department?)

Recently, I’ve embarked on an epic Avengers blogathon, watching all of Marvel’s superhero films in the run up to The Avengers, despite having never read any comic books ever (except the Christmas of 1992 when I was given the Beano annual as a present). Now I’ve finally got round to the main event, a mere 26 days since it was released! Tomorrow, I give you exclusive preview of Richard Donner’s Superman!

So here we finally are. It’s taken five films – which the cynical might describe as prequels – in which, amongst the implausible and explodey costumed exploits, Samuel L Jackson and/or Clark Gregg occasionally popped in for a cheeky cameo or two to mutter mysterious hints about an organisation called SHIELD and an initiative called the Avengers. And now, after an arduous and sometime checkered journey, we reach the frothy, fever-dream culmination.

From the evidence of Marvel’s earlier cinematic efforts, this should only be a good, rather than a great, piece of work. It’s an absurdly ambitious task, and you do not envy the Nick Fury-esque efforts of Marvel’s  producer Kevin Feige in assembling such a giant project. Feige must simultaneously please a mainstream summer audience, his Disney overlords, and the slavishly pedantic fanbase.

But the proven talent of Joss Whedon as writer-director is an inspired choice. Whedon is a both geek demigod and a storyteller of some mettle, someone who knows the importance of empathetic characterisation even as the sky is falling, and in the Avengers he has largely managed to fashion something great, rather than good, ticking all the requisite boxes but sprinkling proceedings with a stirringflair and Whedon’s trademark wit.

It is an imperfect film. Among my quibbles: does it really need to be over two buttock-achingly hours long? Did the SHIELD HQ really need to be a massive flying invisible floating aircraft carrier (could it not have just been, you know, a building somewhere)? Do we really need a protracted sequence where Iron Man and Captain America are essentially doing some extreme car maintenance on the SHIELD HQ? Are Black Widow and Hawkeye really superheroes, or are they in fact just regular human beings who are a bit handy with weapons that any regular human being could feasibly purchase? (Shit versions of Batman, then. Surely SEAL Team 6 would have been more effective than a sexy lady in lycra?) And can we not come up with better baddies than the army of orc-lite faceless cackling prosthetic green snot-monsters?

But you didn’t pay to see green snot monsters – you paid to see a buggerload of superheroes, and a buggerload of superheroes you get. The Avengers is the Escape to Victory of comic book movies. but as plate spinning acts go, Whedon has managed to keep most of the crockery unsmashed, balancing his volatile and ragtag gang with masterful equilibrium. Such is the radiance of Robert Downey Jr’s charism that it could be so easily have become Tony Stark Presents The Iron Man Show (Featuring The Avengers), but everyone gets at least one super-duper cool move, and most get a few. Even Hawkeye and Black Widow – who, as we’ve established, aren’t really superheroes, get their moment to shine.

Things tend to dither a little towards the middle, as the requisite falling out inevitably takes place so that Samuel L can give a rousing speech and the heroes can learn to get on with each other. And when they finally do, WOW. It’s the payoff everyone’s waiting for, and it delivers. Man oh man, it delivers. The final hour is as entertaining an hour as any I have ever seen on screen. Stomping, satisfying and frequently (and unexpectedly) funny, it makes a hero of the heretofore mistreated Hulk and allows all the superheroes to live up to their label. Suddenly the five previous  films are worth it. The Avengers is one of those rare films that has you grinning from ear-to-ear as you leave the cinema. How often does that happen these days?

Previously: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, ThorCaptain America.

Assembling the Avengers #5: Captain America

Now look, I don’t know why I need to keep explaining this. It’s very simple. I’m blogging all the Avengers films, before I watch the big Avengers film. Understood? Good.

Captain America – supposedly the “First Avenger”, although isn’t Thor like a thousand years old? – is the fourth and final Avenger to arrive on our screens, and also the one I was largely unfamiliar with. The first time I heard the name, I assumed it was a joke. “Captain America”? Seriously? Why not call him “Uncle Sam” and be done with it? How about “Patriot-Man”? Or “Johnny Hero”? What about “Promoting-America’s-Foreign-Policy-Man”?

Expectations sufficiently lowered, I did not hate Captain America as completely as I might have.  It’s a solid action romp with charm, gusto and a well-utilised period setting, and it’s curiously refreshing to see some old-fashioned heroics on a silver screen. Sometimes, you just want an unpretentious, heart-on-sleeve, morally unambiguous hero to win the day, and Cap fills that gap remarkably well.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a weedy kid who, when given a magic serum (developed by Iron Man’s dad, no less!), turns into a super soldier, picked by the genius Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci in yet another small-but-perfectly-formed turn). Cue the world saved, and World War II all sorted out, with style. They have a decent crack, too, at explaining to newcomers like me why he’s dressed like a pro-wrestling stripper,

A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, mind (would The Dark Knight have been as flabbergastingly great without Heath Ledger’s Joker?), and on this note, Captain America falls. Rent-a-villain Hugo Weaving dusts off his evil scowl for the umpteenth time to play the Red Skull in a hue of garish red. I’m not saying Weaving’s Red Skull is pantomimic, but Hugo will be appearing as Evil Stepsister #2 at the Bournemouth Pavilion’s production of Cinderella this Christmas. There was only one thing I could think of:

There’s also a few too many lazily obvious tropes. Falling prey to a common Hollywood malady, Cap operates in a revisionist past, imagining a 1943 where women, blacks and Germans enjoyed a climate of tolerance and equality in America. Hayley Atwell’s love interest is particularly contrived – it’s not that Steve shouldn’t get the girl. Of course he should. But did it have to be another implausibly I’m-One-Of-The-Boys/Independent-Woman cliché?

Nevertheless, it’s a solidly diverting hour and a half, and Evans puts in a good square-jawed turn. Like it’s hero, it’s sturdy and reliable without really being particularly spectacular. And it ends on a brave, downbeat note, which for such a transparently heroic character, is surprising. I’m almost converted. GOD BLESS ‘MURICAH!

 Previously: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor. Tomorrow: The Avengers Assemble.

Assembling the Avengers #4: Thor

Despite having never read any comics ever, I’ve gone a bit Avengers mad lately. I’m blogging about all the precursory Marvel films in preparation for the big Avengers megafilm. Join me!*

*(Please don’t physically join me)

So we come to Thor, a retelling of the Greek Norse myth which vies with Iron Man for perhaps the most satisfying entry in the Marvel cinematic universe – an achievement all the more impressive when you consider just how silly it all is. Translating any comic book hero to the big screen will always be fraught with problems – the difference in tonal styles between the two mediums are vast – but a God with a magic hammer who talks like a Tolkien elf interacting with normal people? How the hell do you pull that one off?

The first thing you do, apparently, is get Kenneth Branagh on the blower. At first, hiring the guy who directed Much Ado About Nothing to helm a superhero summer blockbuster is baffling. But as you watch it becomes clear Marvel has made a canny decision: here is a filmmaker all too familiar with the flowery Shakespearean language favoured by Thor (a gigantic Chris Hemsworth) and the Asgardians, a director who can handle the the Lear-esque arc journeyed by the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as well as the immense action that goes along with it (Ken is no stranger to the battlefield). Here, as well, is a director conscious that the clash of cultures between Gods and men is ripe for an occasional dip into comedy.

The Iron Man model dictates that superhero movies should be a careful balance of humour, heart and high-octane-action (the three Hs, if you will). And it is properly funny when Thor, a fish-out-of-water transported to 21st-century America, tries to adjust to the mundanities of modern life. Having the God of Thunder smash a coffee cup on the floor of a diner and bellow hungrily “ANOTHER!” will never not be funny. And with his hammer in hand, Thor kicks a perfectly sufficient amount of arse.

Not every hit lands. Asgard is an overblown CGI mess. The bridge guarded by Idris Elba, for example, appears lifted from the Rainbow Road level of Mario Kart. It’s possibly owing to the director’s inexperience with technology in film, who naively has his camera swoop at every vertigo-inducing opportunity, just as the first directors to handle early CGI did (before it became obvious that CGI should mimic basic dolly-crane camera movements).  The icy, Doctor Who-ian baddies fall a little flat, as does Natalie Portman’s slightly clichéd independent-woman-genius-scientist-love-interest.

Quibbles aside, though, it’s generally an effective and slickly executed adventure. It’s silly without being smotheringly ridiculous, funny without being hammy, heartfelt without being slushy. It packs a punch and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. What more do you want? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to talk like an Asgardian. “YOU DARE THREATEN THE SON OF ODIN WITH SUCH A PUNY WEAPON, ETC!”

Previously: Iron Man; The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2. Tomorrow: Captain America.

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