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Movie Review: The Avengers (5/5/12)

Movie Poster: The Avengers

The Avengers

Directed by Joss Whedon
Screenplay by Joss Whedon

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

How long is The Avengers? 142 minutes.
What is The Avengers rated? PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.

CLR Rating: 5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Avengers

Scarlett Johansson is Black Widow in The Avengers.
© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Whedon pits hero against hero against villain in one of the smartest, funniest, and most exciting action movies in the last few decades.

Over the last half decade, Marvel has embarked on a massive superhero journey, explaining over half a dozen films the origins of the Avengers, a superhero supergroup comprised of Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). No matter your thoughts on the preceding movies (Iron Man 2 was not very good and Thor was stupid but fun), you’re bound to adore this weekend’s brilliant culmination, the Joss Whedon nerdfest – and I mean that in the best way – The Avengers.

When fans heard Whedon might be connected to this movie, much rejoicing was heard across the internet. This is the man who brought you “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” and Serenity. Whedon is a bloody genius with ensemble casts and witty, intelligent dialogue – which tells you all you really need to know about The Avengers. Obviously I’m going to continue, because that’s what I’m here for – but first and foremost know that the film’s screenplay is nothing short of brilliant.

There’s no slow build to action in The Avengers. In the opening moments Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, of whom we caught a glimpse post-credits in Iron Man 2) debarks from an aircraft with his assistant, Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders), and we’re thrown into world-in-jeopardy action from the first five minutes. Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) has been assisting S.H.I.E.L.D., an international peacekeeping organization, to build a pipeline from space through which clean energy will flow like manna from heaven. Ostensibly. Unfortunately, at the end of the pipeline is, well, outer space. And who should be attracted to this open door like a moth to flame, but Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of Thor and son of Odin, who is poised to take his “rightful” place as ruler of earth. Loki, a boy king, petulant, cruel, and vengeful, will force the people of earth to bow to him; after all, we are made to be ruled. After a short, gripping battle, Loki escapes after veritably hypnotizing Hawkeye and Selvig.

“As of this moment, we are at war,” Fury says solemnly, and Fury closes his metaphorical fist, bringing together all our major players. Dr. Bruce Banner, who hasn’t had a “Hulk smash” incident in over a year, is treating the sick in Calcutta. Tony Stark is living in bliss with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the upper floors of Stark’s latest, greatest monument to himself, Stark Tower. Natasha Romanoff is doing what she does best – interrogation – in Russia. Steve Rogers, awakened after 70 years trapped in ice, has no idea what to do with himself so demolishes punching bags and mourns the death of his sweetheart. Fury sends Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to gather the unwilling, largely unstable troops and load them aboard the helicarrier. After the earthbound heroes track down Loki, Thor pops in from the heavens to try to save the day on his own terms – which of course irks the mortals.

What follows is what we’ve really been waiting for; we didn’t pay to see how the superheroes band together – no, we want to see them fight each other. Of course, each battle between our reluctant heroes is better than the last – and they aren’t simply thrown together Mortal Kombat-style for the sake of box office dollars. Authentic, clever dialogue segues into the superhero equivalent of fisticuffs. This is where Whedon excels – he gives his casts, no matter how large, generous character development. His actors seem to have ample time to step comfortably into their characters. In the case of The Avengers, these guys are military experiments, radiation survivors, supergeniuses, and demigods. Each feels vastly different from the others about his position in the world. With egos this big, something’s bound to come undone – but in Whedon’s hands, it’s not only a pleasure to watch the interactions between our heroes, it’s also absurdly exciting.

In a further twist, it turns out S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t actually in this battle for anything so innocent as clean energy; WMDs are the name of the game. “A nuclear deterrent,” as Stark says, “’cause that always calms everything down.” After Loki escapes his cage, scattering the Avengers to the four winds and murdering a secondary but beloved player, the heroes have a reason to fight. An army from outer space soars through a portal over New York City, and the S.H.I.E.L.D’s Council sends orders to nuke Manhattan. What are heroes for, if not to save the world? Ours do just that in stylish, exhilarating fashion, punctuating the BOPs and WHAMs and roars with hilarious discourse.

Not to compare actors to superheroes, but this cast could easily have exploded in our faces; like their characters, each of these actors is famous in his or her own right. Some are A-list while others hover just below, and it takes a persuasive genius (shall we call Whedon a Nick Fury of sorts?) to gather them and get them to fight for a common cause. Rumor has it Edward Norton’s ego was a bit too large to join this cast, but that’s fine. Ruffalo makes a perfect Banner and a great Hulk. Evans is charmingly earnest, delivering more in facial expressions than with lines. Downey, Jr. spouts dozens of one-liners that still have me chuckling fourteen hours later. Johansson and Renner play out a complex, tense relationship with subtle ease. Hemsworth is certainly a pretty face – though sorry, ladies, no shirtless Thor this time around – but he plays Thor comfortably and with a lack of humor that makes the character that much funnier. Hiddleston inhabits Loki with a frightening glee – the kind you associate with a future psychopath roasting ants with a magnifying glass. Yet every actor metaphorically doffs his hat to the next; you’ll see no scenery-chewing or one-up-manship in The Avengers. These guys genuinely play nice together, and that’s the key to a great ensemble cast.

For Whedon fans and comic aficionados alike, The Avengers is a nerdgasm, a playful and intelligent opening to the summer movie season (and be sure to stick around for a few minutes into the credits for a peek at the next step in the franchise). This year is going to be a doozie – before The Avengers, you’ll see new trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Battleship, Brave, and Frankenweenie – in other words, all the big movies about which we movie nerds are preliminarily salivating. If The Avengers is any indication, this summer in theaters going to be nothing short of breathtaking.

Movie Review: Fright Night (8/20/11)

Movie Poster: Fright Night

Fright Night

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Screenplay by Marti Noxon

Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster
Colin Farrell as Jerry
Toni Collette as Jane Brewster
David Tennant as Peter Vincent
Imogen Poots as Amy
Chris Sarandon as Jay Dee

How long is Fright Night? 106 minutes.
What is Fright Night rated? “R” for bloody horror violence and language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Fright Night

Toni Collette, Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin star in Fright Night.

Remake features wit and gore,
easily has more bite than the original.

Horror film comes in all shapes and sizes: you have slashers, torture porn, psychological horror, horror-comedies, deliberate B-horror, artsy scare flicks (which the foreign market largely has covered), and myriad others. Finally, there’s a little-appreciated subgenre that’s largely been put to rest since the eighties: the adventuresome, fun horror movie. These inevitably feature plucky kids battling some terrifying force of evil: think The Lost Boys, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or “IT.” One of the lesser eighties-era adventuresome horror flicks was 1985’s Fright Night. Seeing as how The Lost Boys just had its third sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street had a remake last year, and “IT” is being remade for release in 2012, Fright Night was ripe for a redux.

The Fright Night remake doesn’t follow in the footsteps of most horror retries – it’s stylish, smart, and well done. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) and his single mother Jane (Toni Collette) live in a cookie-cutter suburb of Las Vegas, full of newly built houses set thirteen feet apart on identical lots complete with beige vinyl siding and cheap, pretty interiors. Jerry (Colin Farrell), a seductive blue-collar construction worker, moves in next door to Charlie. Suddenly, empty desks become more frequent in homeroom; kids go missing from school. Charlie’s friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) starts to suspect Jerry is none other than that creature of eternal darkness, a vampire.

The original Fright Night was great precisely because it joined the ranks of films that grant agency and preternatural knowledge to teenagers. In the aforementioned films, adolescents battle against not only an inexplicable force of evil, but against adulthood itself. In the new Fright Night, Charlie shirks his former persona as a role-playing nerd in favor of horrible friends who twitchily flick emo-kid hair out of their stoned eyes. His new girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) would like to go farther than Charlie is comfortable with, and Charlie’s too preoccupied with the new vampire neighbor to have relations with his girl. Of course, a youthful penchant for make-believe comes in handy when the pretend enemy turns out to be very real.

Because he lives just outside Sin City (although this is never explained), Charlie is inundated with the propaganda of Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Criss Angel facsimile who looks like Russell Brand at his most dramatic. Vincent, whose stage show is called Fright Night, claims to be a vampire slayer but is full of theatrics and little else. In the original, Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowall) was a B-movie actor whose ilk probably included Christopher Lee and Elvira. He’d been making bank from “vampire killing” for so long that he had no idea how to actually kill vampires – because of course according to adulthood, vampires aren’t real. In the remake, Tennant plays Vincent as a frustrated egomaniac whose antics are a result of a tragic childhood vampire incident. When Charlie approaches him, Vincent is appreciably iffy, but of course the two end up battling the demon together.

The cast seems to be having a lot of fun throughout the movie. Colin Farrell, whose pale skin and dark brows make for a stark contrast even without vampire makeup, ably takes on the role that Chris Sarandon played in the original – sexy, superbly composed ladies’ man whose eyes betray not a hint of emotion. Anton Yelchin (Running With Scissors, Charlie Bartlett), who displays a self-effacing comedic style similar to Michael Cera’s, is more than adequate as the lead. Imogen Poots, playing a role that’s supposed to be rather unlikable, lends to Amy more than a pretty face. Naturally the kids-battle-evil subgenre has to feature a number of adults who refuse to believe, but in Fright Night Toni Collette’s Jane is pretty quick to jump on the vampire bandwagon after a vicious attack on her home. Christopher Mintz-Plasse probably leaped at the opportunity to don Greg Nicotero’s faux gore and let axes swing at his neck. Best of all is David Tennant, who’s known best as the tenth Doctor Who; the actor gets to swagger around in leather pants scratching his testicles and cursing at scantily clad women, and he’s good at it.

Discerning “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fans will have noticed Fright Night’s screenplay is written by Marti Noxon, who penned some of the best episodes of the WB show. Who better to take on a screenplay about a solo teenager combating vampires? Noxon’s screenplay is witty, gory, and fast-paced. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who also did memorable work on The Others, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and The Road, made Vegas, a city of lights and constant motion, seem remarkably cold and foreboding. His exacting camerawork blends with 3D technology to create an experience that’s worth it. If I’m going to pay for 3D glasses (which is a racket), I want things to fly out of the screen at me – and Fright Night features some good 3D effects.

I’ve lamented before that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, particularly when it comes to horror. We’re seeing more sequels and remakes than ever before – but this one, like the new versions of Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, is easily equal to or better than the original. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is what it is: a fun, adventuresome horror movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It offers gore, suspense, and wit. It’s hard to believe autumn is nearly upon us and an influx of horror flicks is on the way along with jack-o-lanterns and caramel apples. Fright Night is like the butler, ushering you through the open door to a new year’s worth of horror flicks. If the fall’s scary movies are better than this one, we’re in for a good year.