The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon) – Looking at The Avengers again on Blu-ray following its triumphant record-breaking run at the box office, it’s clear that the film is indeed something special. This isn’t just one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s one off the best blockbusters to ever boost popcorn sales during the summer season. Sure, it’s ultimately just a piece of explosive fluff, but it’s also about as good as explosive fluff gets. The movie nails the bubblegum fun of comic books as well as any movie ever has. Just the climatic New York City smash em’ up alone is an incredible accomplishment, weaving together several iconic characters battling to the best of their abilities without ever sacrificing one character over the others or feeling like overkill. Marvel promised up something special with this project five movies in the making and they delivered. One of the great joys of any avid comic book fan has always been the crossover books that combine favorite characters. Over four years the company laid the ground work so that moviegoers could become attached to Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk (ok, maybe that one didn’t quite go so well) and have that same experience when they all united here. It hadn’t really been done before and the numbers don’t lie. It worked, oh boy did it ever work.
The best decision the company made on the movie was hiring Joss Whedon to write and direct. Not only did he have the comic book geek credentials required to take on the material, he had already proven for years in television that he knew how to weave ensemble stories. That TV experienced also helped because he essentially jumped into the sixth episode of an ongoing series, had to continue and pay off ongoing narrative arcs, and needed to adopt a house style that Marvel had carefully constructed. He did it all and put his storytelling skills to good use. Even though this movie isn’t really about anything in particular, it’s a hell of a writing task. You have to properly service four major superheroes, three secondary Shield heroes, as well as a major established villain and weave that all into an action narrative that can never be bogged down with characterization. Somehow he did it and found a way to create action scenes that cut between several competing storylines without losing momentum. That isn’t easy and yet watching the film it feels effortless.
The performances are obviously fantastic given that everyone knew their roles going in. Robert Downey Jr. is of course the star fast-talking his way into stealing every scene (hey, he is the Sinatra of this super-powered Rat Pack after all). Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth continued their solid work as respectful, yet tongue-in-cheek versions of the most difficult characters to translate from comic book panels. Tom Hiddleston chewed scenery with villainous glee and topped his previous work. As the Shield super-agents Scarlett Johansson joined Whedon’s league of badass ladies in style, Jeremy Renner did his quiet action hero thing well as Hawkye, and Sam Jackson was at his most Sam Jacksony, only with an eye patch to increase bump up his awesomeness to comic book levels. Clark Gregg got some of his funniest material while sending Agent Coulson out to pasture and Cobie Smulders introduced a strong cold-as-ice substitute to replace him. Then of course there’s Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. Going in, that was the most troubled character for Marvel and their Hulk movie is closest thing the company has to a failure (which led to Edward Norton losing his gig as Banner). Coming out of The Avengers, the character is a new favorite with Ruffalo giving Banner a laid back comedic charm that made him appealing, while his Hulk smashed in a way comic book fans long dreamed of witnessing in live action. It’s an amazing cast for this sort of thing, and let’s face it despite all of the pricey action sequences, The Avengers is an ensemble piece at the end of the day and if one of the actors dropped the ball, the whole movie would have gone to shit with them.
The Blu-ray is unsurprisingly stunning. Marvel’s bright primary color aesthetic glows on HD TVs and the thunderous sound mix is designed to piss off neighbors. The special features sadly lack any of the in depth docs that Marvel is known for (aside from a brief, yet entertaining 14 minute featurette), but given the massive success of the film we can guarantee this won’t be the only homevideo release, so I’m certain that’s coming. So, making of tidbits are limited to the second screen Ipad feature that’s better in theory than practice and a fantastic commentary from Joss Whedon that delves into everything with his characteristic self-depreciating wit. He’s clearly proud of the film and justifiably so, but stops chatting the moment the credits roll, so there’s no discussion whatsoever of Thanos or sequels. There are also some amusing outtakes and 15 minutes of deleted scenes hinging around the original wrap around device that gave the movie a much darker tone and was wisely dropped. There’s also the latest Marvel One shot short film, that’s easily the best and slickest they’ve ever done starring Jesse Bradford and Lizzy Caplan as a pair of 20somethings who find one of the alien guns from the climax and go on a cross-country bank robbing spree. Despite the unfortunate lack of docs, it’s a pretty great package of supplements. Now, obviously The Avengers isn’t a perfect movie, there are logic leaps and an entire race of alien villains without a smidgeon of personality. However, given all of the ways this project could have so easily become a disaster, this is a triumph of popcorn entertainment. Marvel is going to have a hell of a hard time following this up in their next round of features, but given everything they’ve accomplished so far, it’s safe to say they have a plan. Let’s see how it turns out. Even if this remains the company’s high note, they’ve left a permanent mark on the blockbuster landscape and created the single greatest shawarma advertisement of all time. (Phil Brown)
Dark Shadows (2012, Tim Burton) – While definitely closer in tone to what director Tim Burton should be making with his vivid imagination, wit, and eye for detail, Dark Shadows shouldn’t be heralded as a comeback for the director just yet. Very loosely based on Dan Curtis’ vastly more serious gothic drama, Burton’s tongue-in-cheek approach boasts great performances from a game cast, and some top notch production design, but the material never once rises above anything more than a mild amusement. The potential for this film to serve as a middle ground between the big haired auteur’s beloved Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice feels somewhat squandered by a lightweight script and a really terrible final 20 minutes.
Returning once again to the Burtonverse is Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, a former English blueblood living in a coastal Maine town named after his family, who becomes cursed after spurning a young lover that turns out to be a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). Transformed into a vampire to prolong the suffering brought on by the death of his true beloved, Barnabas is eventually buried alive in the woods by an angry mob and awakened almost 200 years later in 1972. Retuning to his beloved Collinwood Manor, Barnabas seems pleased to see his bloodline still in possession of the estate, but dismayed at the state of disrepair the family fishing business has fallen into. New patriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) simply throws up her hands when it comes to dealing with her creepy son (Gulliver McGrath), her brooding, moody rocker daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), and her scheming, unfaithful husband (Jonny Lee Miller). Add to that a lackadaisical groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), a chronically hungover shrink hired to keep David in line (Helena Bonham Carter), and a new nanny (Bella Heathcote) who looks like a dead ringer for Barnabas’ deceased love, and you have a full house of familial dysfunction that has become a staple for Burton.
The character work turned in here by Depp is shockingly good considering he was very close to becoming a caricature of himself after the Pirates of the Caribbean films and his most recent collaborations with Burton. The buttoned up and occasionally vicious Barnabas, also manages to have a lot of heart and disarming politeness, putting the character in line with the oddballs Depp patented earlier in his career rather than the one’s he’s become known for these days. But if anyone walks off with the movie under her arm, it’s Green who seems to be channeling Meryl Streep from Death Becomes Her or was taking notes from Pfeiffer about her Witches of Eastwick performance in the best possible ways. She walks the fine line between malevolence and camp that Burton clearly strives for here, and it comes in extremely handy as the movie progresses.
It’s all quite charming until the special effects heavy dénouement kicks in and the film stops being logical even within its own kooky world and plot elements arrive seemingly out of left field in a lazy assembly of happenings simply designed to end a film the writer had no clue how to end. By about the 90 minute mark of this nearly two hour film, you can almost hear the projector trying to race to the finish line. The ending looks great, but none of it really signifies anything and the final sting makes the audience care even less about what they just saw because it feels like it really was all for nothing. The ending doesn’t kill the film. It just ends with a resounding thud.
The picture and especially the sound quality of the Blu-ray are near perfect, but the special features are pretty middling. The Maximum Movie Mode picture-in-picture special features only really come to life when talking about Bo Welch’s stunning production design, and there really isn’t all that much to talk about during the film. There’s also some really pointless deleted scenes that add nothing. What needed to be shot was an alternate ending. (Andrew Parker)
Cleanskin (2012, Hadi Hajaig) – The third directorial effort from independent filmmaker Hadi Hajaig is a mildly interesting action story of a secret agent (Sean Bean) tracking down a British-born Muslim terrorist (Abhin Galeya) in London. Meant to be a thrilling pursuit alongside the story of how a disillusioned student becomes a suicide bomber, Cleanskin fails to capture much interest.
Ewan (Bean) is told by his handler (Charlotte Rampling) to do whatever necessary to stop those wanting to attack London, and given that this former soldier lost his wife in a previous bombing, for Ewan that means killing. Meanwhile, law dropout Ash (Galeya) is working on his plan to attack a London hotel when he encounters an old girlfriend (Tuppence Middleton) and appears to become conflicted. Through flashbacks we see how his transformation began eight years ago after meeting the leader of a radical Muslim group. As each gets closer to his goal, it is revealed that there’s more going on that neither knows about.
Both Ewan and Ash are brooding and inscrutable, leaving little opportunity for us to be invested in either of them. The real point of the film is showing how anyone can come to do horrible things in the name of their people, and its demonstration of how the leads are two sides of the same coin is interesting and commendable. However, the action is lacklustre and it’s hard to see if anyone is really invested in their roles. We learn next to nothing about Ewan, and Bean conveys his passion for rooting out terror with the same enthusiasm as he has for TPS report cover sheets. Ash’s story is a carbon-copy of all the “home grown terror” stories in the media, and his romantic conflict is hardly compelling. When the details behind an early casualty of Ewan’s ruthlessness are discovered, and the deeper roots behind the conflict are revealed, the twist isn’t that shocking even if you didn’t see it coming.
The DVD includes a “making of” featurette that includes the usual platitudes about each other from the actors and crew, with some neat little segments on the effects and the commitment the D.P. and producers have to shooting on film rather than digital. Otherwise it doesn’t add much to an already unfulfilling movie. (Jenna Hossack)
The Babymakers (2012, Jay Chandrasekhar) – There was a time when Jay Chandrasekhar (and by extension, his Broken Lizard comedy troupe brethren) was looked upon as a director with a lot of potential after making Super Troopers into an unexpected cult phenomenon. Then, little by little, he devolved into a hired gun working almost exclusively in television before reaching his career nadir here, a comedy so dreadfully unfunny that favors from his Broken Lizard buddies can’t even slightly cover up all of its problems.
Early David Gordon Green collaborator Paul Schneider and former TV personality turned serious actress Oliva Munn are hopelessly miscast as a married couple trying to conceive a child to no avail since his sperm count is too low. After trying everything in their power (after literally 45 minutes of absolutely nothing exciting or funny), the man tries to convince his buddies into helping him rob a sperm bank that still has one lone sample of his sperm left from when he used to be potent. Hilarity never once ensues for a single second.
There are two fleeting moments where Chandrasekhar approaches anything close to his on-screen work with Broken Lizard: one involves a planning meeting for the heist that features the director himself playing a former Indian mobster and thief and the other is just a simple montage of Schneider getting hit in the nuts repeatedly. That’s it. As a director, he seems bored with the script (courtesy of one of the writers who made the equally deathly Happy Madison production Strange Wilderness and one who made the totally forgettable Martin Lawrence vehicle Black Knight), and Schneider and Munn have zero chemistry and no way to make any of it sound even remotely funny. The leads and the director seem like they don’t care in the slightest, it’s edited in such a way that characters and sub-plots (most of which are sexist, xenophobic, or homophobic in the extreme) are totally forgotten about. On the bright side, Broken Lizard alum Kevin Heffernan steals every scene he’s in, playing a best friend role that could have been one note with some genuine wit and heart that the rest of the movie lacks.
Even the special features on the DVD could care less about being there, since there’s a featurette that’s literally culled from the disc’s two other features. There are EPK interviews and 4 minutes of useless B-roll that came directly from the press kit. They still even have the bumpers on them to tell editors when and where to cut. It’s completely useless. Much like the movie itself. (Andrew Parker)