DVD Review: Lockout

Guy Pearce shoots off bullets and one-liners in 'Lockout.'

Guy Pearce shoots off bullets and one-liners in ‘Lockout.’

Die Hard in space, as sci-fi thriller Lockout could be accurately dubbed, may be the silliest (and stupidest) Die Hard rip-off yet.

Guy Pearce stars as devil-may-care secret agent Snow, who is forced to infiltrate a high security prison to rescue the President’s daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) after the prisoners rebel and take over. The catch? The prison, MS One, is in fact a maximum security space station orbiting Earth.

Pearce is easily the best part of Lockout, playing Snow as a Han Solo clone, complete with gruff charisma and roguish wit. Luckily for the film and audience, he pulls it off. Trading either barbs or blows with every character he comes across, Pearce effectively establishes himself as a more-than-capable leading man. It’s just a shame he’s given so little to work with.

Lockout‘s plot is as described above, and that’s pretty much it. There are no layers to the concept of MS One, though the writers throw some inadequate tidbits to the audience that make the film’s ultimate simplicity all the more frustrating. The fact that Emilie is on board to investigate rumors of prisoner abuse is one of the film’s only thoughtful ideas, but it’s immediately drowned out by explosions and gunfire and never goes anywhere. An undercooked side plot with Pearce’s character being framed for murder back on Earth is so meager and poorly executed that it’s not worth trying to piece together.

There are a lot of missed opportunities in Lockout, which decides to poorly copy better movies instead of introducing its own ideas. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is the movie most plagiarized, from the concept to the characters, but almost every idea in Lockout originated in a different, better movie.

Lockout is about evenly split between effective action sequences and ones that look shockingly crappy. The film’s jumpy, amateurish direction does nothing to alleviate sensory headaches caused by the worst of those scenes. Honestly, at times, the level of thought that went into Lockout makes it appear as if it were made by middle school students taking an Introduction to Filmmaking course, albeit ones with deep pockets.

Atrocious direction aside, Lockout not only asks viewers to suspend their disbelief, but to throw basic laws of physics out the window. Pearce tries his damnedest, but it feels like he’s fighting alone. Lockout‘s directors, producers, and writers (including super-producer Luc Besson) are all perfectly content to let the film float around aimlessly like so much space debris. The supporting cast is no help, with Grace floundering in a thankless role and Peter Stormare mangling already cheesy dialogue as a dull government supervisor.

Lockout wants to be seen as a legitimate action thriller, but it can’t even be truly enjoyed as a parody of the same. With mind-numbingly bad special effects and even worse plot points, Pearce’s fine performance doesn’t even come close to saving Lockout from collapsing under the weight of its own idiocy. Lock this one up and throw away the key. C-

 

Photo Courtery: EuroCorp.

DVD Review: Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise is JACK REACHER in Christopher McQuarrie's action thriller.

Tom Cruise broods in Paramount’s action thriller adaptation.

Tom Cruise is no Jack Reacher, despite what the posters may say. Cruise lacks the brawn, height (in the books, the character clocked in at 6’5″), and most importantly the charisma of Lee Child’s protagonist. The actor does his best to launch a new franchise with Jack Reacher, but the overlong end product is ultimately a unfortunate misfire. 

That’s not to say that the action thriller is a total dud. Director Christopher McQuarrie deserves a great deal of credit for keeping the action moving, particularly in the film’s harrowing close-quarters fight scenes. While Jack Reacher‘s dialogue drags and sags, the action sequences are exciting and innovative. Reacher’s brawl with hired thugs in a cramped washroom is a standout, simultaneously brutal, exhilarating and humorous. And the film’s second-act car chase is a heady, jarring thrill, much better-executed than most recent comparable scenes. McQuarrie also excels at bringing out the darkness in Jack Reacher‘s criminal underworld, infusing many scenes with a unshakeable, uneasy sense of dread and decay.

Jack Reacher‘s biggest flaw is its inability to juggle a lot of moving parts at once. The plot, based on Child’s novel One Shot, follows Reacher’s investigation of the murders of five seemingly random civilians by an expert sniper. It’s a decidedly dark story for an action thriller to tell, and McQuarrie’s stomach-churning depiction of the murders, the film’s opening, is an immediate and highly potent sucker punch. However, Cruise attempts to sell Reacher as a brooding antihero with an acerbic wit, and when faced with such abject carnage, all he can do sullenly stare into the distance and fire off a few inconsequential one-liners.

The supporting cast is equally dissonant. Rosamund Pike shows cleavage but no acting ability as defense lawyer Helen Rodin, who regresses from successful businesswoman to damsel in distress with little reason other than to give Reacher something to do. Meanwhile, Werner Herzog slithers around as a Russian mobster called the Zec, a really nasty piece of work, and David Oyelowo works on making his temple veins stand out as a detective at odds with Reacher. Only Robert Duvall, a reliable action staple, and Alexia Fast, a fresh new talent, stand out in their few scenes.

It couldn’t be any clearer that this is Cruise’s vehicle, but the actor surprisingly doesn’t make as much of an impression as he should. He’s a less likable Ethan Hunt with no sense of humor, entirely bereft of the charm the audience is meant to believe draws  characters to him.

Unfortunately for Paramount, little apart from McQuarrie’s direction really works, and Jack Reacher devolves into a series of clichés surrounded by such stale dialogue as “I’m a drifter with nothing to lose,” meant to sound threatening but actually just painful. By the time the two-hour mark rolls around, Jack Reacher has outstayed its welcome, and there’s still half an hour to go.

Cruise does his best work when he’s allowed to infuse his fight scenes with a playful, devil-may-care attitude, but Jack Reacher‘s script fails him, and the audience, by taking itself entirely too seriously. It saps the fun out of it all, leaving Cruise to run through the motions without the energy he needs to keep the audience invested. I would love to see what a creative director like McQuarrie could do with a more energetic, intelligent and interesting script, but Jack Reacher is as by-the-numbers as they come, too lazy to think for itself or ask its audience to do the same. C+

Image Courtesy: The Boston Globe.

DVD Review: Piranha 3DD

One park-goer has an unfortunate encounter with a piranha.

One park-goer has an unfortunate encounter with a piranha.

I should have known better than to go into a movie titled Piranha 3DD expecting anything less than a trainwreck, but after Alexander Aja’s gloriously bloody, hilarious, and entertaining guilty pleasure Piranha 3D surprised me back in 2010, I was hopeful.

Sadly, the follow-up proves that lightning never strikes twice. Everything that was enjoyable about Piranha 3D – the campy characters, over-the-top gore, and tongue-in-cheek script – is missing from this shockingly awful sequel.

This time around, the mayhem is set in the Big Wet Waterpark, a sleazy adult resort with ‘water-certified’ strippers, a year after the events at Lake Victoria. Protagonist Maddy (Danielle Panabaker), a marine biologist who co-owns the waterpark after her mother’s death, is shocked by how far her disgusting step-dad Chet (Anchorman‘s David Koechner) has gone. When she finds piranha in a nearby lake, she’s the only one who realizes that the prehistoric fish could make their way into the waterpark through pipes that Chet has illogically connected to the lake. Chaos ensues as hundreds of vapid hotties attempt to escape the bloodthirsty fish (somehow, “get out of the water” never occurs to many of them).

While its predecessor made fun of the sexploitation horror genre, Piranha 3DD is too puerile to be making fun of anything intentionally. The self-parody is upped to such an extent that the audience laughs at the film instead of with it. All of the actors are so inexcusably, hilariously bad that ultimately even the CGI piranha give more nuanced performances. Incomprehensibly, the filmmakers try to give the movie some dramatic heft when the blood starts spilling, and they fail without qualification.

Panabaker, 30 Rock co-star Katrina Bowden, and many nameless bombshells are nothing more than eye-candy to be bloodily dispatched by the fish. VIng Rhames and Christopher Lloyd, holdovers from the first film, give the Piranha 3DD its only entertaining moments but both only appear on screen for a couple of minutes. And David Hasselhoff’s appearance as a jerky, self-absorbed version of himself is funny for a few seconds before he opens his mouth and we realize that he’s just another cheap ploy meant to distract the audience from the idiocy of what they’re watching.

Nothing in the film makes any sense at all, particularly not the ludicrous way that the fish are ultimately dispatched. And the film’s final scare is so ridiculous that it made me want to beat my head against a wall in hopes of cleansing it from my memory. In fact, I wish I could expunge the entire movie from my memory, it was so utterly horrible.

With a title like Piranha 3DD (pronounced double-D in the trailers in case there was ever any confusion about the filmmakers’ intentions), one might think that the people involved were predicting what grade the schlockfest might be ultimately be saddled with. Shame I can’t comply: Piranha 3DD deserves nothing more than a double F.

Photo Courtesy: Impulse Gamer.

DVD Review: Paranormal Activity 4

The activity continues in 'Paranormal Activity 4.'

The activity continues in ‘Paranormal Activity 4.’

Let’s start off with the little good in Paranormal Activity 4, the fourth and slightest entry in Oren Peli’s breakout found footage horror series.

Lead Kathryn Newton is surprisingly strong, and she makes the audience care about her character Alex. The suburban teen’s interactions with neighborhood boy Ben (Matt Shively), laden with flirtation and humor, are the film’s only organic, truthful moments. Unlike previous main characters like Micah (Micha Sloat), Daniel (Brian Boland), and Dennis (Chris Smith), all irritating and irrational jerks, Alex is an innocent, and the audience is actually pulling for her to make it through. Newton and Shively give compelling, realistic performances, filled with teenage angst and awkwardness. The audience grows to like them.

Alex is recording strange occurrences in her house after her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) grows close with creepy new neighbor Robbie (Brady Allen) and his ‘invisible friend.’ With Ben’s help, Alex is able to set up cameras all around her house in hopes of getting to the bottom of what’s happening. Predictably, she doesn’t like what she finds.

Sadly, with the exception of the film’s two leads, everything in Paranormal Activity 4 feels threadbare. The entire film is nothing but scraps from the previous entries in the series. Whereas the methods of found footage in the previous films felt believable and added to the suspense, here it feels forced. Why the main character is recording everything is never clearly addressed, nor are any of the plot points from previous installments. When the directors attempt to sexualize the 15-year-old protagonist with revealing clothing, it feels sleazy and uncomfortable, adding nothing to the film other than to reveal how desperate the franchise has become. The scares are minimal, and though there are a few jump-out moments, nothing is on the level of any of the previous films. XBOX Kinect tracking dots and video-chats are clever ideas to record more activity, but none of it really works, and it was my patience, not nerves, that was fraying by the end of the film.

Of course the demon-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) shows up, but everything in this fourth entry is too meager to make a difference. After building the mythology of the series in Paranormal Activity 3, writer-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman add practically nothing in this installment, only tossing in a few related images at the very end of the film. The film’s ending is a cop-out, plain and simple, ruining the suspense that the film has built with a single, crappy-looking scary image and a ridiculous ‘twist’ that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Though it was billed as a sequel to Paranormal Activity, the fourth installment feels more like a teaser for upcoming entries. Paranormal Activity 4 is the least substantial one in the series by far, but it still feels overlong and tedious. The original’s spirit of innovative terror has been exorcised almost completely, leaving an empty shell with dismayingly few actual scares. It’s a ghost of its former self. D+

Image courtesy: Chocraisins.blogspot.

Critics’ Choice TV Award Noms Announced

Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson of FOX's 'New Girl' are both up for awards this year.

Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson of FOX’s ‘New Girl’ are both up for awards this year.

Nominations for the 3rd Annual Critics’ Choice TV Awards have been announced, with lots of surprises.

Awards heavyweights Modern Family (ABC) and Mad Men (AMC) were both almost entirely passed over, while underdog shows like FX’s The Americans and Netflix’s House of Cards received more nominations than I could have hoped for.

In the individual acting categories, recently cancelled shows like ABC’s Happy Endings and TNT’s Southland received multiple nominations, surely causing network execs on those two channels to sigh in regret.

Strong performances in underrated shows were highlighted – Don Cheadle, Laura Dern, Danny Pudi, Andrew Lincoln, Timothy Olyphant, Vera Farmiga, Tatiana Maslany, and Abigail Spencer, among others, received very well-deserved recognitions.

My personal wishlist is below (in red), followed by the actual nominations:

Cinema Sentinel’s Best in Show:

     Best Comedy Series: Happy Endings – ABC

     Best Actor – Comedy: Louis C.K. (Louie) – FX

     Best Actress – Comedy: Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) – NBC

     Best Supporting Actor – Comedy: Danny Pudi (Community) – NBC

     Best Supporting Actress – Comedy: Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) – ABC

     Best Drama Series: Game of Thrones – HBO

     Best Actor – Drama: Timothy Olyphant (Justified) – FX

     Best Actress – Drama: Claire Danes (Homeland) – SHOWTIME

     Best Supporting Actor – Drama: Jack Gleeson (Game of Thrones) – HBO   

     Best Supporting Actress – Drama: Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) – HBO

And now the nominees….

BEST COMEDY SERIES

The Big Bang Theory – CBS
Louie – FX
The Middle – ABC
New Girl – FOX
Parks and Recreation – NBC
Veep – HBO

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Don Cheadle (House of Lies) – Showtime
Louis C.K. (Louie) – FX
Jake Johnson (New Girl) – FOX
Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) – CBS
Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) – NBC
Jeremy Sisto (Suburgatory) – ABC

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Laura Dern (Enlightened) – HBO
Zooey Deschanel (New Girl) – FOX
Lena Dunham (Girls) – HBO
Sutton Foster (Bunheads) – ABC Family
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) – HBO
Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) – NBC

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Max Greenfield (New Girl) – FOX
Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) – CBS
Alex Karpovsky (Girls) – HBO
Adam Pally (Happy Endings) – ABC
Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) – NBC
Danny Pudi (Community) – NBC

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Carly Chaikin (Suburgatory) – ABC
Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) – CBS
Sarah Hyland (Modern Family) – ABC
Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory) – CBS
Eden Sher (The Middle) – ABC
Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) – ABC

BEST GUEST PERFORMER IN A COMEDY SERIES 

Melissa Leo (Louie) – FX
David Lynch (Louie) – FX
Bob Newhart (The Big Bang Theory) – CBS
Patton Oswalt (Parks and Recreation) – NBC
Molly Shannon (Enlightened) – HBO
Patrick Wilson (Girls) – HBO

BEST DRAMA SERIES

The Americans – FX
Breaking Bad – AMC
Downton Abbey – PBS
Game of Thrones – HBO
The Good Wife – CBS
Homeland – Showtime

BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) – AMC
Damian Lewis (Homeland) – Showtime
Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) – AMC
Timothy Olyphant (Justified) – FX
Matthew Rhys (The Americans) – FX
Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) – Netflix

BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Claire Danes (Homeland) – Showtime
Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel) – A&E
Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) – CBS
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) – BBC America
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) – AMC
Keri Russell (The Americans) – FX

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad) – AMC
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) –HBO
Michael Cudlitz (Southland) – TNT
Noah Emmerich (The Americans) – FX
Walton Goggins (Justified) – FX
Corey Stoll (House of Cards) – Netflix

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) – Showtime
Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) – HBO
Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) – AMC
Regina King (Southland) – TNT
Monica Potter (Parenthood) – NBC
Abigail Spencer (Rectify) – Sundance

BEST GUEST PERFORMER IN A DRAMA SERIES

Jim Beaver (Justified) – FX
Jane Fonda (The Newsroom) – HBO
Martha Plimpton (The Good Wife) – CBS
Carrie Preston (The Good Wife) – CBS
Diana Rigg (Game of Thrones) – HBO
Jimmy Smits (Sons of Anarchy) – FX

BEST MOVIE OR MINI-SERIES

American Horror Story: Asylum – FX
Behind the Candelabra – HBO
The Crimson Petal and the White – Encore
The Hour – BBC America
Political Animals – USA
Top of the Lake – Sundance

BEST ACTOR IN A MOVIE OR MINI-SERIES

Benedict Cumberbatch (Parade’s End) – HBO
Matt Damon (Behind the Candelabra) – HBO
Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) – HBO
Toby Jones (The Girl) – HBO
Al Pacino (Phil Spector) – HBO
Dominic West (The Hour) – BBC America

BEST ACTRESS IN A MOVIE OR MINI-SERIES

Angela Bassett (Betty & Coretta) – Lifetime
Romola Garai (The Hour) – BBC America
Rebecca Hall (Parade’s End) – HBO
Jessica Lange (American Horror Story: Asylum) – FX
Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake) – Sundance
Sigourney Weaver (Political Animals) – USA

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MOVIE OR MINI-SERIES

James Cromwell (American Horror Story: Asylum) – FX
Peter Mullan (Top of the Lake) – Sundance
Zachary Quinto (American Horror Story: Asylum) – FX
Sebastian Stan (Political Animals) – USA
David Wenham (Top of the Lake) – Sundance
Thomas M. Wright (Top of the Lake) – Sundance

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MOVIE OR MINI-SERIES

Ellen Burstyn (Political Animals) – USA
Sienna Miller (The Girl) – HBO
Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Asylum) – FX
Lily Rabe (American Horror Story: Asylum) – FX
Imelda Staunton (The Girl) – HBO
Alfre Woodard (Steel Magnolias) – Lifetime

BEST REALITY SERIES

Duck Dynasty – A&E
The Moment – USA
Pawn Stars – History Channel
Push Girls – Sundance
Small Town Security – AMC
Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan – BBC America

BEST REALITY SERIES – COMPETITION  

Chopped – Food Network
Face Off – Syfy
Shark Tank – ABC
So You Think You Can Dance – FOX
Survivor – CBS
The Voice – NBC

BEST REALITY HOST

Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars) – ABC
Cat Deeley (So You Think You Can Dance) – FOX
Gordon Ramsay (Hell’s Kitchen/Masterchef) – FOX
RuPaul (RuPaul’s Drag Race) – Logo
Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) – FOX
Kurt Warner (The Moment) – USA

BEST TALK SHOW

Conan – TBS
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – Comedy Central
The Ellen DeGeneres Show – Warner Brothers Television Distribution
Jimmy Kimmel Live! – ABC
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – NBC
Marie – Hallmark Channel

BEST ANIMATED SERIES

Adventure Time – Cartoon Network
Archer – FX
Phineas and Ferb – Disney Channel
Regular Show – Cartoon Network
The Simpsons – FOX
Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Cartoon Network

Photo Courtesy: US Magazine.

DVD Review: The Impossible

Watts and Holland struggle for survival in 'The Impossible.'

Watts and Holland struggle for survival in ‘The Impossible.’

Watching The Impossible, a drama about the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand, is a harrowing experience in of itself. It’s a testament to the great work of director Juan Antonio Bayona that the audience feels completely swept along for the ride during the film’s first half, as the big wave wreaks havoc on a tourist resort and the film’s shell-shocked protagonists struggle to reach safety.

Those protagonists are British tourists Maria and Lucas Bennett, a mother and her son, played marvelously by British-Australian actress Naomi Watts and 16-year-old British newcomer Tom Holland. Watts shows off her full dramatic range, going from stunned, teary disbelief to determined, mother-bear ferocity in a matter of seconds. Grievously wounded in the disaster, Maria fights both to stay alive and protect her son. Watts truly shines in the role, never hitting a false note with her visceral, unidealized performance. Her desperation, fear, and pain are palpable on-screen, and her weary terror never feels false or inaccurate. Holland, meanwhile, is a revelation as her levelheaded son, struggling to keep his wits about him during an unimaginable catastrophe. The audience feels what Holland feels as the young actor excels in conveying a vast range of emotions with just a glance.  His is an unmistakable talent.

The other members of the Bennett family, separated from Maria and Lucas during the tsunami, are father Henry (Ewan McGregor), and young sons Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). All three are terrific in their roles, particularly McGregor, compelling as a father torn between protecting his younger sons and searching desperately for his wife and Lucas. He commands attention in his scenes, and my only regret is that the audience doesn’t get to see his story immediately after impact. His scenes, tense and watchable as they are, appear shoehorned into a movie that makes Watts and Holland its sole focus.

That narrow lens is The Impossible‘s only significant shortcoming as a movie. Though the tsunami killed well over 200,000 people and affected millions, the film only allows audiences to watch a Hollywood story unfold within that chaos. It’s a slightly romanticized version of a terrible tragedy; though the photogenic stars are put through Hell, they come out relatively unscathed, and while that makes for an inspirational story, it feels almost purposefully unrealistic. It’s worth noting that the family on which the Bennetts’ story is based in fact hail from Spain, not England. The Alvarez family’s story is the one unfolding in the film, so it is disquieting that, though the film was created by Spaniards, the main characters are all portrayed by photogenic British actors, and the native Thais only appear when they are selflessly helping the Bennetts get to safety. The film glazes over the destruction wrought on Thailand and anyone other than the Bennetts, and The Impossible would have been a more complete and likely better film if it had resisted the temptation to ‘whitewash’ events.

The movie’s real MVP, however, is the man behind the camera. Bayona does a top-notch job of recreating the terror, magnitude, and natural savagery of the 2004 tsunami. As people, chairs, boards, trees, and buildings are crushed under the force of a seemingly endless, massive wave of water and debris, The Impossible makes a credible bid to be the most realistic and visually overwhelming film about a natural disaster ever made. You won’t see a scarier, more punishing twenty minutes anywhere else. The camera, diving headfirst into the mayhem, somehow simultaneously catches both the scale of the destruction and the heartbreaking look of traumatized panic on Naomi Watts’ face. It’s tremendous, in-your-face filmmaking.

Despite its numerous shortcomings as a film, The Impossible succeeds in giving audiences a glimpse into the terror that the 2004 tsunami’s victims felt. For that, it should be commended. Terrific performances by Watts, Holland, and McGregor, in addition to Bayona’s stellar direction, help The Impossible to transcend its script’s frustrating limitations and show audiences the terrifying face of nature that is so often overlooked and forgotten. B

Photo courtesty: Edgewater County Confidential.

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.