THE AVENGERS


The Avengers is a very entertaining movie and gets the adrenaline going, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it’s totally successful or rises that far above what it is.  Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn and directed by Whedon, it’s an oddly schizoid movie.  On one side are wonderfully witty lines with often hysterically snarky dialog while on the other side are serious, earnest and highly dramatic tete a tetes that fall flat on their face.  On one side are the vibrant actors and Oscar nominees (Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner) and on the other are film personalities with pretty faces (Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans)–and no matter how equal the writers may try to make the various superheroes when it comes to their powers, Evans will never be able to Eve Harrington Downey when it comes to Stanislavksy.  (For those keeping score, Scarlett Johansson falls somewhere in the middle, which in many ways reflects her role in the movie, a character trying to bridge the gap between all the antagonistic good guys.)  And finally on one side you have large scale action sequences filled with massive set pieces of uninhibited, glorious destruction (Manhattan now seems to be the new Tokyo, destined to be destroyed on a regular basis due to the specter of 9/11 in the way Japan is haunted by the atomic bomb) and on the other side is very little death (see Battle for LA in contrast—for The Avengers the studio apparently wanted to challenge the audience, but in a very non-challenging way).  As was noted, Whedon and Penn have a way with a snarky line (the best written scene is when all the heroes are in one room and due to the influence of Loki, get under each other’s skins saying all the mean things everyone in the audience is thinking).  But when it comes to heavy scenes, the authors can do little but immediately make fun of them once they’re over (Whedon had the same issue in Cabin in the Woods—the unbearable scenes of overage teenagers in distress were only made palatable, if that, by the more comic scenes of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  These more serious sequences might have had a better chance if all the actors were of equal caliber (there’s actually a very nice one between Ruffalo and Downey that suggests this); but this was ultimately a battle, unlike the one against Loki, the superheroes simply could not win (for an example, take the scene between Thor and Loki that Iron Man aptly described as Shakespeare in the Park).  The whole thing culminates with a knock down, drag out for the Big Apple when some aliens resembling the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz make their way through some sort of space time continuum and unleash their blitzkrieg upon an unsuspecting metropolis.  The battle itself is not exactly boring, but it also isn’t that imaginative and all in all, pretty derivative (again, it’s the snarky wit and two hysterically funny bits by the Hulk that really made this work as well as it does).  The special effects are, of course, first rate, though none may quite equal the SFX of Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes (though one does shudder at the idea of this fashion style making a comeback since very few people can get away with short shorts—I know, I’ve tried).  The ending is resolved through a deux ex machina provided by Stellan Skarsgard (let’s face it, the plot is a bit clunky—c’mon, be honest with yourselves and give the devil his due) as well as an inconsistency with how much control Bruce Banner has over his green (ho, ho, ho) alter ego (apparently, it corresponds to the needs of the script at any given time).  But in the end, The Avengers is a perfectly fine time waster.  It’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but, hey, it could have been worse.  It’s also no Spiderman III, Superman or Fantastic Four.

MYSTERIES BOTH SECULAR AND DIVINE: Reviews of Angels and Demons and State of Play


The producers, director, and writers would have you believe that the intended audience for Angels & Demons are those who find religious issues to be of interest. But in reality, the actual audience for this movie are people who like crossword puzzles, anagrams and other word games. The real theme of the movie is not whether science and religion can be reconciled (in fact, whenever the dialog drifts to rel v. sci it all gets pretty silly), it’s what does this clue; that word hideously branded into a cardinal’s chest; that dead body mutilated and murdered in that way mean, and how will it lead Tom Hanks to what obscure bit of art history that will lead him to the bad guy. Angels and Demons is a perfectly acceptable suspense thriller that is actually very entertaining until the ending whereupon we are blessed (blessed, get it?, get it?) with one of those twists that renders everything that has come before it ridiculously unbelievable. The acting is perfectly fine with Stellan Skarsgard taking the honors. However, the real standout performance is the incredible recreation of the Vatican. The low point of the film is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s last line which is a paraphrase of Deborah Kerr’s final words in Tea and Sympathy (where she tells a teenager she is about to deflower “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will…be kind”). It’s simply too close not to believe that someone didn’t know.

I consider the original version of State of Play to be one of the great mini series in TV history. So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version. The main reason it worked as well as it did for me was that the authors (screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gillroy and Billy Ray) found an absolutely brilliant American parallel scandal to put at the heart of the drama, an attempt by a Big Brother type company to win a government contract to take over domestic spying. And whenever the movie focuses on the central mystery of how two apparently unrelated deaths are intrinsically linked, it’s riveting (the direction by Kevin McDonald is quite satisfactory). It falters when it comes to characterization. Russell Crowe plays one of those scruffy reporters who always looks like he just got out of bed; you know, the kind who don’t play by the rules, but we forgive him because he brings down people like Nixon? The character’s a cliché and if he’s not a stereotype, he should be. The up and coming blogger is played by Rachel McAdams and she has no real character whatsoever; she’s a less developed version of one of those Dirty Harry sidekicks, though in this movie she’s allowed a better fate. The little tete a tetes the two have over the old journalism versus the new journalism never catch fire because the dialogue is the same paint by numbers argument that comes up whenever any new technology is introduced, the old “mark my words, the introduction of sound will be the death of the movies” type stuff. The acting honors are taken by Helen Mirren as the hard as nails editor and Justin Bateman as a slimy bisexual lobbyist. Ben Affleck is becoming more and more interesting as he seems to be taking a page from the Matt Damon play book: be an ensemble player rather than a star. All in all, a fun ride.