Review: “The Avengers”

Marvel Studio’s “The Avengers” is the culmination of what may be the most ambitious project in film history. For those movie fans who have been living in a cave for the past several years, Marvel has been releasing several individual superhero movies that have all set the table for this huge event film. Two “Iron Man” pictures, “Captain America”, “Thor”, and “The Incredible Hulk” have all been linked together through brief reoccuring cameos and hidden after-credits scenes that refer to something called “The Avengers Initiative”. As any comic book geek could tell you, that’s a reference to the Marvel superhero team that first debuted in comics in 1963. On the surface, the idea for an Avengers film that’s directly tied into other individual superhero movies sounds great. On the flip side, even though the other films have been good, there are still plenty of areas where “The Avengers” could go off track. Well as a movie and comic book fan, I’m happy to say that “The Avengers” not only meets the challenges of it’s vision, but it’s an action packed adrenaline rush that offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year.

To handle this rather large undertaking, Marvel placed the project in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon was a good choice mainly due to his variety of experience. He’s found success in television, film, and comic books and he uses his knowledge of each combined with Disney’s deep pockets to create a movie that would appeal to the fanboy and the casual moviegoer alike. One thing that helps Whedon is that the film doesn’t require your traditional origin story. While we do see the generation of the team, we know all of the characters from the previous Marvel movies so Whedon is able to dive right into the story. That being said, don’t mistake this for a deep, engaging story that will challenge the audience. But I’ll also say that anyone going into “The Avengers” for that has already missed the point.

Throughout the other Marvel films, particularly “Captain America”, we learned about a cosmic energy source known as the cosmic cube. In “The Avengers”, S.H.E.I.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists led by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to harness the power of the cube, now known as the Tesseract. But suddenly the cube activates and opens a portal allowing the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to entire the facility and steal it. Knowing the immense threat associated with the Tesseract being in the wrong hands, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. But getting such a diverse group of superheroes to cooperate and coexist proves to be a lot harder than expected.

Fury starts by contacting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He sends her to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) while sending Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to Stark Tower to speak to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). While the two are gone, he approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and sends him on a mission to retrieve the Tesseract. Upon hearing of Loki’s involvement, the thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also entires the mix as does the marksman and assassin known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each of the heroes have their own baggage and their own personalities which often times clash to the point of dysfunction. But their disagreements give us some of the movie’s cooler and often times funnier moments. As you would expect the situation worsens and it’s up to the team to pull together or the world will be taken over starting with New York City.

It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story but it really works because Whedon understand his characters and he knows what kind of movie he’s trying to make. His familiarity with the Marvel comic book universe is clearly seen throughout the picture but nowhere more than in his treatment of the characters. As a comic book fan, I was really impressed with how they all felt right and it’s clear that the source material played a big role in shaping the on-screen versions. But Whedon never falls into the trap of taking things too seriously. The movie is filled with laugh out loud funny moments that are cleverly used and they never feel cheap or forced. They mix perfectly with the razor-sharp dialogue and the jaw-dropping action sequences. But the fantastic action and special effects shouldn’t surprise anyone. Afterall, “The Avengers” is a superhero action picture and Whedon knows it. The action comes at a furious pace and I can see where some may view it as relentless. Personally, I was completely wrapped up in it. The movie sells the superhero action through some of the most spectacular visuals and editing that you’ll see. I was blown away.

I can’t write a review of “The Avengers” without mentioning the incredible cast. One of the reasons the Marvel films and particularly “The Avengers” works so well is because of the amazing casting. Everyone is invested in their character and not one single performer phones it in. Downey, Jr. continues to be the perfect Tony Stark mainly due to his natural ability to use sarcasm and fire off funny quips without hesitation. Chris Evans, known more for his goofier roles,  is also quite good as the serious and straight-laced Captain America. I also really liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. He’s the third actor to take on the role and he nails it. Much like Downey, Jr., Hemsworth is the perfect Thor and he shares some of the film’s best scenes with Hulk. Renner and Johannson also handle their roles very well. But I have to give special time to the wonderful Tom Hiddleston. He’s a remarkably diverse actor and he shows it here. His Loki is mysterious, mischievous, and evil and Hiddleston slithers through his scenes stealing many of them. There are also nice smaller performances from Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders that are just icing on the cake.

I can see where some people may not respond as positively as I did to “The Avengers”. The action is pretty much start-to-finish and if you’re not interested in the characters you’ll have a hard time embracing the story. There are also a few shortcuts taken with the story for the sake of convenience that could have been done a little better. For me, I have a connection to these characters through all my years of comic book reading and this film exceeded my expectations. But being a comic reader isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this movie. If you’ve liked what Marvel has put out leading to it, you’re going to love “The Avengers”. Sure, it’s a loud, energetic summer popcorn flick, but it’s also a really good one. It’s honest and it never tries to be something it’s not. Featuring one of the better ensemble casts and some top-notch directing from Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” is a big budget blockbuster that actually deserves all the money it’s going to rake it. When’s the next showing? I’m ready to see it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

Many critics touted “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as Woody Allen’s return to quality filmmaking after a few clear misses. I have to say I was with them, at least for the first half of the film. But that’s when Allen’s story started to undo everything I had bought into. His sharp locational eye beautifully captures the Spanish architecture and countryside and his good-looking characters lay the groundwork for a promising story. But the movie is never as funny or as clever as it tries to be and it ultimately falls apart in its nonsensical third act.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a romantic comedy that takes a rather cynical look at romance. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky holds what you might call a more traditional look at relationships. She is grounded, sure of what she wants, and engaged to a preppy young business man back home. Cristina is somewhat of a free spirit, prone to dive into love and life headfirst regardless of the consequences. One of the more compelling things about the friends is that they are so opposite at first. Hall and Johansson have some great moments together bouncing their own perspectives and idiosyncrasies off each other. They start off as genuinely interesting and believable best friends.

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Their summer takes an interesting turn when they meet Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a struggling artist who invites the girls to spend the weekend with him in the city of Oviedo. Vicky is against the idea but Cristina sees it as intriguing. The stronger spirit wins out and the three take off. Over the weekend the relationships between the three grow more complex. But things go from complex to nutty when Juan Antonio’s neurotic ex-wife María Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture. All four of the main stars are fantastic. Cruz, who won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, gives the movie some energy just as it was starting to lag. But even she is undermined by Allen’s off-the-wall final act which seems to make everything earlier feel disingenuous.

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For me the biggest casualty of Allen’s uneven story is the unique difference between Vicky and Cristina. By the end of the film I didn’t feel that were that unique at all. Even when Cristina becomes involved in an absurd love triangle, the Vicky character, who I thought was more grounded and level-headed, responds in a way that seemed inconsistent with who she has been. Some may attribute that to an evolution of her character but I think the movie goes on to show that she isn’t as deep of a character as she appears to be at first. I also didn’t find the film nearly as funny as others. Sure it has a few dry quirky moments, but it’s real attempt at humor falls flat particularly in the second half of the film. This truly is a tale of two movies in one.

Some have felt the movie promotes the pursuit of love and happiness and the idea that romance may be fleeting but it’s worth the effort. I feel it looks at love through a very pessimistic and sometimes skewed lens. There’s no denying that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a beautiful movie. The gorgeous Barcelona sights and sounds and the attention to the culture creates the perfect environment for what could have been. For me “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wasn’t the summer to remember. Although it might have been if the second half of the film was as good as the first.

VERDICT – 2 STARS