DVD Review: The Avengers

Courtesy The Weeklings.com.

The Avengers assemble during a New York battle.

Marvel’s fans, particularly those of the die-hard comic-book variety, are a patient bunch. For 4 years, they watched and waited in nervous anticipation as the studio baited them with post-credit teasers that worked to slowly draw together the characters from five different superhero box-office successes. Marvel’s build-up to The Avengers was the most drawn-out in Hollywood history; since 2008’s Iron Man, through 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel was slowly putting the pieces together for one colossal blockbuster. The hype around it was massive, perhaps more than any other film ever made. And it fell to Joss Whedon, a relative unknown to mainstream audiences, to make a film a capable of living up to it. Whedon, a geek god thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity and Dollhouse, had never even been near a movie of this magnitude before.

Luckily, both for The Avengers and his career, there’s not a trace of jitters from Whedon here; he directs with the eye of a true fanboy, making sure that there’s not a dull moment between the heavy-duty, jaw-dropping CGI battles that appear often, but not too often, throughout the film. He also has a keen eye for humor; this is the funniest Marvel movie by far, and the audience I saw the film with back when it was in theaters roared so hard and so often that entire lines of dialogue went unheard. And that’s a shame, because the screenplay is a gem, giving every character, even the one described as “a giant green rage monster” by his fellow heroes/misfits, time to shine along with some killer one-liners. Take for instance the wonderfully snarky and egotistical Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) , who taunts his teammates even as he quietly pulls them together, nicknaming long-locked, arrogant Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) “Point Break” and “Shakespeare in the Park,” while christening expert archer Hawkeye “Legolas.”

The Avengers begins with a bang, as eye-patch-wearing super-spy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally in a substantial role after being delegated to second-long post-credit teasers for far too long) barely escapes a top-secret SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) base being brought down, in true blockbuster fashion, by the diabolical Norse god of mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has returned to wreak havoc on Earth after being chased off by his brother Thor last year in the latter’s stand-alone film.

Unfortunately, the movie has no choice but to reel it back a bit after the opening, as the superheroes are introduced. Among the freaks of nature Fury attempts to pair together in order to stop Loki from destroying the world are WWII-era super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans), re-awakened after 70 years on ice, the beautiful, deadly and and aptly-named femme fatale Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and good-natured scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has an unfortunate tendency to destroy everything around him as the monstrous Hulk when angered. So many characters need time to develop, and Whedon knows that, taking the time to flesh them all out suitably. As the superheroes come together, it soon becomes evident that the biggest threat to the team is not Loki; rather, it’s their own lone-wolf tendencies and inflated egos. Some of the better scenes in the movie involve the heroes clashing with each other; a forest-set brawl between Iron Man, Thor and Captain America results in the utter destruction of the forest itself, while a thrilling sequence taking place aboard a massive airborne SHIELD base sees Black Widow fleeing a vengeful Hulk.

Ultimately, the Avengers find their way to New York City, where a massive battle ensues between the six teammates and an army of aliens called the Chitauri led by Loki. The effects are Oscar-worthy, and the action seamlessly follows all of the characters as they work to evacuate innocent New Yorkers and repel the invaders. In spite of this, however, the finale is the movie’s weakest link. As the robotic space-ships ravage the city, there is an unmistakably Transformers-esque vibe; the aliens are expendable unknowns and the film does nothing to change that. What saves the scene is that, unlike Transformers, this team of heroes is endlessly entertaining to watch, whether it’s the Hulk doing some good old-fashioned smashing or Hawkeye shooting arrows from the rooftops with enough accuracy to make Robin Hood blush. It’s no wonder that, when the camera pans across all of the heroes preparing for battle in the middle of the war-torn city (the money-shot to end all money-shots), the audience erupted into cheering and applause.

As far as the acting is concerned, there isn’t a mediocre performance in the bunch. Chris Evans is believable and winning as the idealistic fish out of water Captain, Robert Downey Jr. plays Stark with his trademark blend of panache and smarmy irreverence and Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk yet, playing Banner as a funny, bashful guy willing to acknowledge and sometimes even accept “the other guy.” Tom Hiddleston makes for a great villain, playing Loki with a snakelike malevolence and psychotic charm that was sorely lacking the last time he played the character. Even Scarlett Johansson, whose character is required to do little other than look sultry, is charismatic enough to warrant a Black Widow spin-off, which I have no doubt will eventually happen.
In conclusion, while The Avengers is far from perfect, it is everything that I hoped it would be and more. Spectacular action sequences, a phenomenal cast of characters and Whedon’s irresistible knack for comedy combine to make The Avengers not only the biggest comic-book movie of all time, but also one of the best. A-
Courtesy: The Weekling.

DVD Review: Dredd 3-D

Courtesy Blastr.com.

Urban patrols Peach Trees in ‘Dredd.’

2012 was likely the strongest year for superhero movies in cinematic history: The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises set box office records (with Avengers clocking in as the third highest-grossing film of all time) and garnered immense critical praise. Following this wildly successful triumvirate of blockbusters is certainly an undesirable task for any budding comic-book adaptation, particularly one with much less name recognition than its contemporaries.

Enter Dredd, Lionsgate’s bold attempt to breathe new life into the British comic strip ‘Judge Dredd.’ The film takes place in a violent, dystopian North America, inside the impoverished city-state Mega-City One, which stretches from Boston to Washington. In order to combat the colossal crime rate in this metropolis, elite police officers known as Judges act as judge, jury and executioner, meting out their own harsh, bloody brand of justice whenever and to whoever they see fit. The most famous and feared of the Judges is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a supercop who lives and kills by the book, without any pretense of a life outside of it. Dredd is called to the scene of a gruesome double homicide inside Peach Trees, a crime-ridden tower complex ruled with an iron fist by merciless drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). As the main supplier of a new drug called SLO-MO, which allows users to experience time at one-percent normal speed, Ma-Ma will do anything to protect her investment. Dredd brings along Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a headstrong rookie with unusually strong psychic abilities. When the two Judges carry out a drug bust and take Ma-Ma’s right-hand man prisoner, Ma-Ma initiates a lockdown, trapping them inside with hundreds of criminals, no way out and no way to call for backup.

Confining Dredd to the closed environment of Peach Trees is one of many smart choices by screenwriter Alex Garland. The concrete setting prevents Dredd from spending too much time developing its world, and wisely allows it to avoid the highly visual blockbuster trappings that other recent superhero films possessed. Instead, the setting allows the film to focus on Judge Dredd himself. The character is something of an enigma: played with deadpan Eastwood-like gravitas by Urban, Dredd delivers his lines with a gargling-marbles growl already familiar to fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The upper two thirds of his face are obscured by a helmet for practically the entire film, lending credence to the perception of Dredd as the faceless, merciless hand of the law. Dredd is pretty much the epitome of an antihero: he never changes, adapts or shows any sign of humanity under his helmet. As an army of thugs comes after him, he simply takes them on, crashing through goon after goon like an unstoppable juggernaut. After a summer of wisecracking, broadly smiling big-screen heroes, it’s refreshing to watch an unapologetically simple, rough and tough protagonist at work. What stops Dredd from becoming heavy, weighed-down and monotonous is Urban’s wry, self-aware performance. Whether delivering well-placed roundhouse kicks or perfectly timed one-liners, he’s a blast to watch.

Olivia Thirlby is restricted to a supporting role but makes the most of what she is given; the fresh, more human Judge Anderson (who tellingly leaves her helmet at home) is the film’s moral center and an able foil for Dredd. Thirlby plays her with an earnestness that’s compelling but never distracting. Sadly, there’s not much to say about Game of Thrones’ actress Lena Headey in Dredd; despite her role as the lead villainess, she’s not on screen long enough to make much of a lasting impression. She’s evil, ruthless and completely disposable. In the end, Ma-Ma is just another petty criminal for Dredd to dourly dispatch.

What sets Dredd apart from other comic-book adaptations is its darkness. Director Pete Travis doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of the film’s universe. Instead, he fully embraces the blood and guts that most superhero movies consciously choose to ignore. Dredd is a gratuitously bloody and graphic in-your-face experience that takes full advantage of its hard R-rating. Characters are skinned, riddled with bullets, fall from great heights to splatter on the ground, and burn to death, all in eye-catching slow motion as experienced by SLO-MO users. The special effects in Dredd are particularly splendid; the dystopian city landscape conjures up a bleak, grimy image of poverty, depression and decay in only a few minutes, while stunningly vibrant, colorful slow motion sequences stay with you long after the credits have rolled. This is the rare movie where 3-D is extremely well utilized and worth the extra few bucks.

Dredd’s excessive violence serves a purpose: it grounds the film as a dark, gritty, very effective action movie. This is a superhero film for mature audiences, one that revels in over-the-top blood and carnage. Thrilling and pulpy as it is, Dredd’s emphasis is squarely on its faceless protagonist; even as the action sequences build and the bodies pile up, the audience gets the sense that for the unflappable Judge Dredd, this is just a typical day in the life. As much as Dredd is not for everyone, those who can see past the blood will find a surprisingly unique, massively entertaining sci-fi thriller that doubles as a likely series starter (though the film’s regrettably poor box office earnings cast doubt on the possibility of future installments.) If Dredd is any indication, Travis, Urban and Garland are just warming up, and, if the film can find new life on DVD, the best is yet to come. A-  

Originally printed in THE FORUM. Reprinted with permission.

Image courtesy of Blastr.com.