Just Seen: Looper / Bill Cunningham New York / The Avengers

Looper

Rian Johnson’s third film is assuredly his best effort to date. The genre-bending director, having tackled film noir by way of adolescence (in Brick) and screwball comedy by way of conmen (in The Brothers Bloom), turns his hand to action by way of Philip K Dick-esque sci fi. In the future, time-travel has been invented, outlawed, and appropriated by criminal gangs who send marked men back thirty years in the past so their corpses will never be found. The assassins, known as Loopers, go about their time-warping work aware that they may one day be forced to confront, and murder, their future selves.

While the thrills are loud and bloody, the ideas floated are quietly philosophical. Some hefty ethical dilemmas amplify the ambiguity of our two leads, leaving us continually undecided which Looper is the true hero: present-day Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or future Joe (Bruce Willis). Muscular and consistently unpredictable, this is genre filmmaking at its most confident and sophisticated.

Bill Cunningham New York

I went into Bill Cunningham New York knowing practically nothing about the eponymous Bill, nor the alien planet known as Fashion on which he inhabits.  To some degree, many of my prejudices about New York high society were quickly confirmed: a spoilt land where snobby socialites and nasal-voiced WASPs complain about the hors d’oeuvre at benefit galas, forever air-kissing. But sitting largely outside this pack is Bill, a humble eccentric who goes about as he has done for years – diligently photographing street fashion by day, and society parties at night, for his two columns in the New York Times, a toothy smile never far from his face.

Even in his ninth decade, Bill’s workload remains relentless. Fashion’s great and good speak of him in reverent tones (“we all get dressed for Bill” says Vogue‘s Anna Wintour, nasally). At Paris fashion week he’s ushered past a queue because one dogsbody designates him “the most important person on the planet”. To see such high esteem for a sweet old man makes Bill Cunningham New York utterly joyous to watch, even for fashion luddites like me.

The Avengers

Marvel’s dream team has lost none of its muster or bluster in the journey from the big screen to the small – it is still, unquestionably, the most entertaining two-and-a-bit hours Hollywood has conjured up all year, standing tall against plenty of other years, too. Joss Whedon’s sparkling confidence is spellbinding. How the hell did the guy behind Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog summon the masterful dexterity to give so many swaggering super-egos an equal footing on a humongous stage? With a billion in the bank and universal acclaim, giving Whedon the gig will go down as one of Marvel’s smartest moves.

Yes, it is hardly the most unique of plots, and yes, it goes a little saggy in the middle, but what elevates The Avengers above all other cinematic superhero jaunts is its infectious, bubbling sense of fun. Nowhere is that better embodied than in the undulating green muscles of the Hulk, who smashes up New York City, and its alien invaders, with the glee of an sugar-intoxicated 8-year-old in a jungle gym, and we all find ourselves dizzy from the fun fumes. This is what comic books were supposed to look like on screen.

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.

Assembling the Avengers #3: Iron Man 2

Over the past few days, I’ve been blogging about all the Avenger movies before watching the Avengers movie, even though I never read any of the Avengers comics. But the Avengers movie is apparently very good. Avengers!

Perhaps keen to recapture some of the golden rusty magic (and not inconsiderable box office) of the first Iron Man, Marvel Studios were quick to rush out a sequel within two years of their debut, and Iron Man 2 is much more of the same from Iron Man 1. Returning director Jon Favreau deems his metallic megastar not broke, so does not fix him. Instead he is multiplied. Stark’s sidekick Colonel Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) is given a beefed-up role with his own Iron suit, and together they fight buggerloads of Iron drone copycats, plus Iron Mickey Rourke as the baddie. It’s Iron Man to the power of 50!

Too often, though, it is as if Stark’s onboard computer JARVIS is at the reins, pre-programming the action to a carefully calculated formula. As before, Tony Stark acts the rich playboy, goes off the rails, and realises his wayward indiscretions in time to save the world. The final act explodes but does not adequately dazzle, adhering to the structure of a final mission of a video game, complete with big boss (Rourke, who commits most of his evil deeds via a laptop).

Still, it has its moments. Marvel’s films seem to have minor characters stealing the show – in the Incredible Hulk it was Tim Blake Nelson, and here it’s Mad Men’s John Slattery as Howard Stark, an actor seemingly born to play old-timey sharp-suited Americans and doing a damn sight better job of it than Captain America’s Dominic West does in the same role. The scene where Tony discovers the secret his father has hidden is wonderful (if laboured).

And with Downey Jr leading the pack, a healthy spoonful of charm and humour is seldom far away. It’s a curious quirk, and credit to the original Marvel writers, that a spoilt weapons manufacturing billionaire could be among their most likeable creations.

All in all, it’s fine. A by-the-numbers entry, sure, but it’s reassuringly hard to care with numbers this entertaining. And we have Shane Black’s threequel to look forward to next year. Perhaps we’ll see ol’ rustbucket bowing out, or indeed, “gettin’ too old for this shit”. Also, fun fact: Iron Man 2 was written by Justin Theroux, aka Adam from Mullholland Drive and cousin of Louis. The more you know!

Previously: The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man.  Tomorrow: Thor. 


Assembling the Avengers #2: The Incredible Hulk

It’s kind of ‘Avengers Week’ here on The Nuge, whereby I watch all the previous Marvel movies in a barefaced attempt to drive geek traffic to the blog whilst everyone’s talking about the Avengers. Yes, it’s shameless. I don’t care, ok?  

Coming just one month after Iron Man in the summer of 2008, The Incredible Hulk reboots the mean green smashing machine, following Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Less thoughtful, less value-neutral (‘incredible’, eh? let me be the judge of that, thank you very much!) and generally more enjoyable than its predecessor, this second attempt at a big screen green giant is perhaps the most complex of the Avengers, and the trickiest to portray. How do you take a troubled genius scientist and a raging alpha-male monster with no regard for human life, and make him a hero?

The first act, largely set in Brazil, is great. It sensibly decides that everyone knows the Hulk backstory, and so condenses the character’s origins into a lightning-fast pre-credits sequence, before spending an enjoyable first hour pitting Bruce Banner on the run, chase-movie style, from some grumpy US special forces.  Undoubtedly enjoying the benefit of Ed Norton’s rewrites, the script is relatively cliché-free, and there are some delightful moments. Tim Blake Nelson nearly steals the show in his brief appearance as scientist Samuel Sterns.

It struggles to leave a mark, though. Marvel have been brave with some of their director choices (Whedon, Branagh, Black) but with Louis Letterier, they went for the safe route. His career spans the full Meh gamut, from OK, I Guess (The Transporter) to Definitely Shouldn’t Have Bothered (Clash Of The Titans). So whilst The Incredible Hulk is very capably directed, and looks fine, it’s tremendously difficult to get excited about. It’s powerfully unmemorable, too.

And ultimately, the problematic elements of the original character become ever-present. Yes, Hulk Smash, but Hulk Wisecrack? Hulk Reflect On The Nature Of His Identity? Hulk Able To Appear Without The Use of CGI? Sadly not. As thoughtful and considered an actor as Norton is, he basically stops acting when transforming, and his presence is keenly missed as ILM take over the reins. Hulk is a blunt knife of a character. It will be interesting to see what Ruffalo does with him in the Avengers. Because you know what, Bruce? You’re right. I don’t like you when you’re angry.

Previously: Iron Man. Tomorrow: Iron Man 2.

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