Monthly Archives: May 2012

Trailer: Les Miserables


I’m still super-excited for this one, and the teaser trailer definitely whets my appetite a bit. It looks absolutely fantastic just from an aesthetic point of view. My biggest complaint, which will continue to be a complaint, is the casting of Anne Hathaway as Fantine. I understand why she was cast (current big name, can actually sing), but she’s still a poor choice in my opinion. She’s just too young and fresh, and even though they’ve obviously tried to make her look like hell, I don’t think they’ve succeeded. Also, her voice isn’t doing it for me. Again, too young and fresh. She’s working hard to provide the emotion, but I’m not sold. Still, I think it’ll be a solid movie. Tom Hooper directed 2011’s Best Picture Winner, The King’s Speech, therefore we know he’s capable of working with great actors and delivering excellent period pictures, so no worries there. This is going to be good, you guys. Squeeeeee.

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Let’s face it: movie stars are, more often than not, extremely attractive people. Many of them are also extremely talented, but sometimes it’s hard to take an exceptionally beautiful face seriously, particularly if you haven’t seen any truly amazing examples of the actor’s work. Also, most notably for actresses, they often only get serious recognition for “playing ugly,” as though it somehow takes bravery on their part. I’m forced to admit that I’m guilty of not taking some actors seriously based on their looks, but I always try to keep an open mind, and I will be the first to admit if I’ve done someone a disservice. Take this post, for instance. I’m here to tell you that Elizabeth Taylor, one of Hollywood’s all-time great beauties and perhaps one of the first true “tabloid celebrities,” is an absolutely incredible actress. And not just because she chose to “play ugly.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony-winning play. It focuses on the dysfunctional relationship of George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), an older couple, he a college professor and she the college president’s daughter, who seem to thrive on making each other unhappy. On the night in question, having already attended one party, Martha invites a new professor (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) over for “fun and games”. What follows is an orgy of drink, dirty secrets, and hostility, with a bit of infidelity on the side. George and Martha drag out not only their own dysfunctions, but those of their guests as well, in an attempt to…I’m not sure. See who blinks first? The lengths to which these characters go in order to truly hurt one another is breathtaking, and perhaps that’s what Albee intended. As the saying goes, “We hurt the ones we love the most.”

Since this movie is adapted from a play, we see all the usual hallmarks of such a film: small cast, limited scenery, very few costume changes, and action that takes place over a brief period of time. It was the first film for director Mike Nichols; he’d been making a name for himself in New York previously to this, and supposedly Taylor and Burton (with whom he was friendly) specifically asked for him to direct. He does a good job of moving the play from a stage to the screen, choosing to focus on the actors, but also moving the action around as much as possible. As with any (good) film adaptation of a stage play, it’s all about the performances, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf may be right up there are that top of the list in that regard.

The acting in this film is nothing short of astonishing. All four members of the cast were nominated for Academy Awards, with Taylor and Dennis taking home their respective prizes. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Richard Burton was robbed. As much as this movie belongs to Taylor (and we’ll get to her in a moment), Burton’s performance was, to me, a much more fascinating piece of work. His George is bitter and jaded, and the sheer venom that he displays in the final scenes is terrifying. At the same time, though, we see flashes of deep devotion, sympathy, and love for his harridan of a wife. He admires her even as he does everything in his power to make her suffer. And from the viewer’s perspective, she almost deserves it. From her very first lines, Elizabeth Taylor is an absolute tower of discontentment and spite. She famously gained some thirty pounds and gave makeup artists a challenge to make her appear older than her thirty-four years, and they even filmed the movie in black and white in order to help age her, but that’s not what makes her Martha so incredible. It’s the almost inhuman hatred and bile that seems to just come streaming off of her in nearly every frame. The audience is completely convinced that this is a woman who has been supremely disappointed in life, and doesn’t care who knows it. For some, this may be cause for sympathy, but it is next to impossible to feel any kind of understanding for Martha. Her only motive seems to be to bring everyone around her down into her depths of despair.

Segal and Dennis do a fine job supporting these two titans. Their emotions and reactions run the gamut, for him from youthful surety and bravado to world-weariness; for her from dizzy, sheltered innocence to drunken madness and abandon. In the end, there’s a certain amount of resignation for their characters, as though they see their future in the relationship of George and Martha, and have realized that the mistakes they’ve already made have set them irrevocably on the path to dysfunction. It’s hard to guess at what Albee’s play is really trying to convey; in the hands of good actors, like these four, the ambiguities of the relationships serve as a sort of funhouse mirror to the ups and downs of any relationship. Watching these people emotionally destroy one another isn’t exactly a good time, but the acting is just so great. I walked away from this movie feeling sort of confused in that I was blown away by it, but I couldn’t really say that I “loved it”. It definitely served to fuel my interest in both Taylor and Burton. If, like me, movie-viewing for you is all about the performances, you’ve definitely got to see this one.

Musical Moment: Birthday Edition

I’m taking this moment to wish an extremely happy 59th birthday to one of Hollywood’s most well-known musicians, and one of my all-time favorite voices: Mr. Danny Elfman! Even if, for some bizarre reason, his name doesn’t ring a bell with you, I guarantee that you’re familiar with his work. He’s been composing for movies and television since the late eighties/early nineties. Ever seen an episode of The Simpsons or Desperate Housewives? Yeah, he wrote the theme songs. Remember the 80s classic “Weird Science”? That’s him with his band, Oingo Boingo. He’s also composed a long, long list of movie scores, including most of Tim Burton’s films.

Today’s selection comes from one of my favorite movies, and easily the best Burton/Elfman project. The bonus is that, although Chris Sarandon provided the speaking voice for Jack Skellington, Elfman did his singing.

The movie Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The song: Jack’s Lament

Happy birthday, Danny Elfman! Here’s to many more, and to a lot more music!

A few news items of note

  • Rupert Everett is going to write, direct, and star in a biopic about Oscar Wilde. Colin Firth, Emily Watson, and Tom Wilkinson will co-star. Brit-tastic! Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the film adaptations of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest or An Ideal Husband, both of which star Everett, you really should.
  • Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) will appear in the newest Steve McQueen/Michael Fassbender project (Hunger and Shame being the first two), Twelve Years a Slave. Apparently it’s based upon a memoir of a man who was born free but coerced into slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor will be playing the main character. Add in Brad Pitt, and those are some serious names. I didn’t really like LMS, but Dano impressed me, and I’m excited to see him in this mix.
  • Finally, here’s the teaser trailer for the upcoming Bond flick, Skyfall. I recently watched Casino Royale, and man, it is so good. Let’s all just pretend that Quantum of Solace didn’t happen, and cross our fingers for this one, eh? The inclusion of Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes really shouldn’t signal bad things, right?

Review: The Avengers (2012)

The summer blockbuster season has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. Reviews are largely positive, word of mouth is deafening, and The Avengers had a $207M opening weekend, smashing all kinds of records, including the biggest domestic opening of all time. Now, many people are probably saying “Well, duh,” or “I told you so,” but for me personally, the success of the Avengers was anything but assured, at least before the trailers started rolling out. Too many superheroes, not enough truly big name stars, that whole “three different Bruce Banners” debacle, the fact that director Joss Whedon had only previously directed one film (cult favorite Serenity) … I’m a fan of big shiny movies, of superheroes, and of Whedon, but still, let’s be realistic, right? Making The Avengers, and making it good, was a tall order, and I frankly doubted that it could be done.

Mr. Whedon, Marvel, everyone involved in making this film: I owe you an apology.

The Avengers picks up where the Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and (sort of) Incredible Hulk movies leave off. SHIELD, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), has its hands on the Tesseract (which we learn of in CA), but not for long. Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) barges in and makes off with it, but not before he kills a few SHIELD employees and brainwashes a couple more to serve as henchmen. Given this threat, Fury decides to bring in a few outlying operatives, ostensibly to help in tracking down the Tesseract. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are tasked with convincing Bruce Banner (now Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) that their assistance is required, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is recruited as well. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up on his own, hot on the trail of his wayward brother. With all of these larger than life characters on board the same gigantic, invisible airship, tensions obviously run high. When Loki is captured, the atmosphere reaches a critical level, and when his henchman arrive to free him, the entire operation seems to be in shambles. Loki uses the Tesseract to open a portal in space, bringing in the Chi Tauri, an alien race, to destroy/subjugate the planet Earth. Finally, Fury’s real plan, to assemble the Avengers, is realized, and results in an epic showdown in Manhattan. All of our heroes, along with Black Widow and sharp-shooter Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must put aside their differences and work together to save the day.

It’s a pretty straightforward plot, but you know, I think the simple stories usually work the best. In this case, I would suggest that the simple story is absolutely necessary in order to allow the characters, and the actors portraying them, to shine. And boy, do they. Whedon’s major theme here is the idea of The Avengers as a big, dysfunctional family, with each individual having his or her own baggage. Stark’s an egomaniac. Rogers has recently woken up in the new millennium, having left behind the 1940s. Thor feels responsible for Loki’s attacks on humanity, and isn’t too happy about having to take on his own brother. Banner has, as Stark puts it, “breathtaking anger management issues,” and so on. Obviously, if this group of people used to operating alone doesn’t manage to work together, there’s not much hope for Earth. Whedon works a miracle with this idea, managing to give each actor the time and space to develop as an individual without focusing too much on one over all the others. Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk is a little more central to the plot, perhaps, but not to the detriment of anyone else. Each Avenger eventually moves into a particular role within the structure of the team, and it’s a natural shift that allows each character (and actor) to find the right “conclusion” to their character’s development.

Speaking of Ruffalo, he nails it. His laid-back presence and intelligence are perfectly suited to Bruce Banner, and he has the acting chops to give real weight to the internal struggle of a man who can never let his anger get the better of him. All of the other actors rise to the occasion as well, building on the characters they created previously and continuing to flesh them out into surprisingly (for a comic book movie, anyway) real people. The other newcomer to the team, Jeremy Renner, does a fine job as Hawkeye, one of two non-super members working hard to keep up with the “freaks”. His chemistry with Johansson (the other “normal”) is solid, and together they bring some extra humanity to the experience. Finally, a word on Tom Hiddleston. While I enjoyed him greatly in Thor, I was a little concerned with his ability to be the main baddie in such a huge venture. I shouldn’t have worried. His every move suggests malevolence, and he holds his own against everyone in the cast (except maybe The Hulk) with perfect ease. His Loki is an incredibly charismatic and interesting villain; he’s got more motivation than the usual comic book baddie who’s only interested in taking over the world. There’s pain in Loki, and Hiddleston is more than capable of balancing that pain with a towering anger and sense of purpose.

The cast as a whole does a tremendous job, both as individuals and as a team, and they are the major strength of the movie, with the action and effects coming in at an extremely close second. From start to finish, the action here is non-stop, and truly fantastic. The great thing about having a group of superheroes who don’t get along is that you get to have them fight each other in addition to the bad guys. Everyone gets a chance to kick some ass, with a fight between Iron Man and Thor as a highlight. Black Widow has a great scene in which she dispatches some would-be interrogators, and Hawkeye’s shooting in the grand finale is totally awesome. And that finale … WOW. I’ve had several friends agree that the wide-ranging fight, involving all of the Avengers, Loki, and the Chi Tauri, equipped with flying chariots and some freaking cool fish-like ships, is the best action scene ever. The fact that it takes place in the middle of New York, which is familiar ground to so many, adds a level of intensity. I cringed every time they used a shot of Grand Central (love that place). Obviously, as with any comic book movie, there’s heavy use of CGI, but it’s all extremely well done here. Apparently this is the first time that the actor playing Bruce Banner was actually used in the construction of The Hulk, and it definitely pays off: he’s still obviously computer-generated, but that small amount of humanization makes him that much more realistic.

The Avengers is, in my opinion, an absolutely incredible piece of work that started back in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. To make multiple movies introducing main characters, to keep the narrative thread going throughout, and to bring it all together into a cohesive whole is a big accomplishment. In terms of the film itself, the credit has to go to Whedon, who manages to juggle a large cast, big characters, and big action perfectly. His signature wit and sensitivity are evident throughout, and feel like an organic fit within the structure of The Avengers series as it has progressed so far. I was asked, a few days ago, to come up with something I didn’t like about the movie. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything concrete. If I have to find a nit to pick, though, I’ve decided that despite the great acting and chemistry of the players, I found the emotional heart of the movie a little lacking. The linchpin that holds the story together, which I admit disappointed me on a narrative level, also felt a little forced, and not as touching and poignant as it perhaps should have been. That said, it could be argued that these are soldiers, and this is war, and there’s no time to truly mourn the dead. Whedon is a master of balancing light and dark, and while the main goal of a summer blockbuster is to be bright and shiny, that ability is still showcased beautifully.

In a sentence? I loved this movie. It was everything I could have asked for, but didn’t really believe was possible. I regret that it’s a piece of a larger whole, because the MO for these franchises is to continually attempt to outdo what came before. I think that The Avengers should be allowed to stand alone as a hugely successful undertaking, worth all the hype and money. I will look forward to the inevitable sequels, of course, because I enjoy the actors and the characters. Some will be good, some probably less so. When you go see The Avengers (and you should), try to stop the Hollywood machine for a moment, though, and just enjoy the movie for itself. You won’t regret it.

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

There’s this movie opening this weekend. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: The Avengers? It’s one of those big blockbuster-y superhero movies, you know, lots of costumes and explosions and all. Will make obscene amounts of money. I’ll probably go see it at some point. (I’M KIDDING YOU GUYS, SEEING IT SATURDAY, SO EXCITED!!!) Anyway, The Avengers differs from other big comic book movies in that it features not one, not two, but four bonafide superheroes, plus a few kick-ass associates. Starting with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has been building up to what will undoubtedly be this summer’s biggest hit with a steady stream of stand-alone “prequels,” each featuring a different superhero. 2008 also gave us “The Incredible Hulk,” which is apparently part of the canon despite swapping out Edward Norton for Mark Ruffalo, and 2011 introduced us to Thor and Captain America, thus rounding out the major cast of characters. I’ve been a little bit behind, and have to admit that I haven’t seen the 2008 “reboot” of The Hulk. But, I did just get around to Captain America, and so I am fully prepared to watch The Avengers assemble on Saturday.

As the title states, Captain America is the first Avenger. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the original 90 pound weakling, trying desperately to enlist in the US Army as America enters World War II. Thanks to his heroic spirit, he is eventually selected to take part in a scientific experiment which, if successful, will transform him from a walking liability into a super-soldier. Naturally, that’s where the fun starts. Following a brief stint as a poster boy for the Armed Services, “Captain America” gets his chance to prove his mettle, single-handedly freeing an entire regiment from the evil clutches of the Nazi spin-off organization known as HYDRA. Led by evil genius Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), HYDRA’s (predictable) plan is to destroy the world. Schmidt is the prototype to Captain America, having undergone the same transformation, but with nastier results. Naturally, Captain America will have to fight these evil forces in order to save the world. Since it’s a comic-book movie, I’ll leave the summary there. Feel free to draw your own conclusions. I’m sure you won’t be far off.

After the success of Iron Man, when it was announced that all these other movies would be made, culminating in The Avengers collective, I was extremely skeptical about the success of such a venture. I loved Iron Man, and thought Robert Downey, Jr. was amazing as Tony Stark, but I just couldn’t imagine that the other films would fare as well, particularly not when they cast relative unknown Chrises (Hemsworth as Thor, Evans as Cap) to take on the other leads. I’m happy to say that I think both movies have proved me wrong. I thought Thor was really entertaining, and while Captain America is notably different, it’s perfectly in keeping with both the overall vision and the characterization of the character himself. Chris Evans does an excellent job conveying the earnestness and heroism of Steve Rogers, a surprising turn-around from the more cocky characters he normally plays. While I found the CGI used to make him look puny seriously off-putting, he manages to make Steve, who’s kind of a goody-two-shoes, truly sympathetic, both before and after his transformation into Captain America.

The cinematography and feel of the movie also succeeds in capturing the excitement and G-rated entertainment of the 1940s. I don’t recall anything jumping out at me at being particularly anachronistic except for the technology being used, of course. The story line is pretty straightforward, and moves along at a good pace. The real strength of the movie, though, lies in the fabulous supporting cast. On the good-guy side, we have Stanley Tucci, rocking a German accent, as the kindly scientist who chooses Steve to be his masterpiece, and Tommy Lee Jones as a gruff, no-nonsense Army Colonel. Dominic Cooper is also worthy of mention as Howard Stark, Tony’s father. Cooper does a fabulous job of emulating Downey’s character in a younger, less modern form. I’m a little sorry we probably won’t see more of Howard. As for villains, well, the great Hugo Weaving, while a little disappointing, is still always enjoyable to watch, and is ably backed up by Toby Jones and Richard Armitage. And finally, we have Hayley Atwell as Cap’s love interest, Peggy. She seems to follow in the footsteps of other comic-book girlfriends, holding her own fairly well, but mostly there to look pretty and provide some emotion. I credit Tucci, Jones, and Cooper with really making the movie alongside Evans, but everyone does a fine job.

Captain America was definitely enjoyable and entertaining. The most impressive thing (to me) is how Marvel has truly managed to tailor each film to its lead character. Iron Man was flashy and impressive, Thor is a bit overblown and dramatic, Captain America was simple and heartfelt. More than Thor, I think Captain America feels like the introduction it is; truly a set-up for what comes after, but still solid on its own. It is certainly advisable to watch all of them in order to fully connect the dots, but I think each movie can exist independently of the others. I’m a little sorry it took me so long to get around to Captain America, but it definitely served as a tempting appetizer to the main attraction, and I’m glad to have a developed sense of who everyone is before I walk into the theater this weekend.

Are you excited about The Avengers? Do you plan to see it asap, or wait out the mad rush?