When a movie critic says something my dad doesn’t agree with, Dad will grunt. “Those critics see too many movies! They have no idea what the average person likes.” Of course, if a critic says something Dad agrees with, he’ll cite it favorably. “Did you see they gave Zorba the Greek four stars? That’s a classic.” Welcome to the world of the critic, where favorable reviews are greeted as the sage musings of a discerning viewer and negative reviews are dismissed as useless hackwork.
Even before I became a critic myself, I defended critics against Dad’s dismissals. My defense rested on two grounds:
Just because I don’t like the same things you like, that doesn’t make me a snob. What would make me a snob would be writing stuff like this:
“The true guiding spirit of [The Avengers] is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and The Avengers, which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.”
“As Loki says to a crowd of earthlings, ‘It is the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.’ We do, Master, we do.”
The first quotation is from A.O. Scott’s New York Times review, and the second is the conclusion of Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review. In a perfecta of culture-capital condescension, neither the Times nor the New Yorker could resist suggesting that the movie is a contradiction of its own anti-authoritarian message, dismissing the ability of the mass audience to decide for themselves what they like or don’t like. I still admire Scott and, especially, Lane as writers—but wow, guys, that is some seriously smug assholery.
Last week I attended, and reviewed, The Addams Family musical. On Broadway, the production has been one of the most striking recent examples of a divergence between critical and popular opinion: it was roundly panned by critics, but it’s kept the seats full since its opening and continues to be one of the highest-grossing shows on the Great White Way. The show was rewritten for a touring production (the one that I saw), but reviews have been only slightly better. Predictably, I hated it too: I called it a “sad-sack,” “by-the-numbers” show.
The audience sure enjoyed it, though. They laughed at every gag, the woman next to me interjecting comments like, “Oh, jeez!” and “That’s funny!” and “Whoa!” A woman in a box seat occasionally laughed so loudly, in fact, that everyone else got a bonus laugh: one at the punchline, and one at her.
Those audience members were not me, and I don’t like the things they like—but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they like. They probably aren’t aware of every local production of, say, No Exit, and they probably don’t really need to be.
The woman next to me, I’m guessing, was looking for a little nostalgic name-brand entertainment that provided her with some unchallenging laughs. Unlike me, she was not particularly concerned with the musical’s fidelity to Charles Addams’s dry wit. She probably knew and liked the TV show, and wanted a play that was kind of like a sitcom. She got it. And if she read my review, I can guess what she might have said: “That guy sees too many plays!”
6 notes | Permalink
What’s the definition of a “summer movie”? Not an easy question to answer, but most summer movies usually feature big movie stars (Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Bruce Willis, Charlize Theron) in romantic comedies (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), big-budget action explosions (The Bourne Legacy), intergalactic aliens attacking earth (Men in Black 3), superheroes based on comic books or graphic novels (The Amazing Spider Man), sequels, prequels, remakes (Total Recall starring Colin Farrell), films looking to become another franchise with sequels and prequels hopefully to follow (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Or how about a heavily-advertised animated feature (Ice Age: Continental Drift) or an idea based on a popular board game (Battleship)—and that probably is not even close to covering half of the targeted 100+ films being released this summer.
We’ve already been delivered the first blockbuster of the summer, as I’m sure you have heard: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which I have not seen yet (I am planning on seeing it). You can read Jay Gabler’s glowing review, deeming it “a new superhero classic” with “a plot [that’s] remarkably coherent”—two statements rarely mentioned in summer movie reviews, let alone on the same page. After reading his review, I was sold on seeing it sooner than later.
Since opening on Friday, May 4 on over 4,300 movie screens across the U.S. (not to mention it opened in foreign territories a week earlier), The Avengers dominated the box office this weekend—setting the North American record for a three-day opening, surpassing previous record holder Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 and hauling in roughly $200 million—and if you missed it opening weekend, you may already start to fall behind in the summer movie hoopla.
Opening this Friday, May 11 is Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with Johnny Depp based on the 1960s Gothic television series. My first impressions are that it looks a bit campy and will have zero thrills in it. Will it be a hit? Probably. Do I want to see it? The best answer I can give is: eventually. It is not on the top of my list of summer movies to see, however the combo of Burton and Depp has worked well enough considering that this is their eighth collaboration, with films ranging from incredible (Ed Wood) to fun (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow) to mediocre (Sweeney Todd) and horrible (Alice in Wonderland). Where will Dark Shadows fall? This weekend millions of people will go see it and suddenly, The Avengers will be a thing of the past as we continue to look ahead to next week’s big release.
That would be Sasha Baron Cohen’s new comedy The Dictator (opening Wednesday, May 16) and a film I cannot imagine anyone is talking about or is excited to see: Hasbro’s board game adaptation Battleship (opening Friday, May 18) and the big film opening before Memorial Day weekend, the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi comedy Men in Black 3 (opening Friday, May 25 and coming ten years after 2002’s Men in Black 2) and so on and so forth. Those are only five films opening in May; according to the film website Box Office Mojo, there are a total of 29 films opening in wide and limited release in May.
The film I’m most looking forward to in May does not actually arrive in the Twin Cities until early June (it opens in New York and L.A. in May) is Wes Anderson’s new ensemble dramedy Moonrise Kingdom, starring regular Anderson players Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It also features Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Harvey Keitel. Not only does it look like a return to form for Anderson, it might have the most intriguing cast of any film this summer.
My intention on writing this column was to go through the entire summer movie schedule dissecting what I’m looking forward to seeing over the next 100 days of the summer movie season, but if I did that I’d probably be writing all night. And these six films I highlighted are only the beginning of the season of movies that, if nothing else, let us hide indoors from those annoying mosquitoes and to beat the heat.
5 notes | Permalink
I’m at the median age of the Avengers cast—older than Captain America, younger than Hawkeye—which is apparently old enough to reminisce about the action movies I grew up with, since that’s what I started doing while driving home from Joss Whedon’s new film. What I remember about those post-Jaws, pre-CGI classics are the little moments. The guy rollerskating backwards while Superman saves the world. Indiana Jones blithely shooting the showoff swordsman. The crying Ewok.
There are no crying Ewoks in The Avengers (for better and for worse, Whedon’s heart doesn’t bleed quite as freely as George Lucas’s, nor do his eyes gape quite as widely as Steven Spielberg’s), but Whedon knows how to nail a moment, and the intelligence, taste, humor, and sheer fun that fuel The Avengers put it in league with the best action-fantasy movies I’ve ever seen.
It’s gratifying that Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, who has a cameo in The Avengers, has lived to see what’s starting to look like a new golden age of superheroes. Some screenings of The Avengers will be preceded by a trailer for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, and Nolan’s gothic noir style is a marked contrast to the breezier flavor of the Avengers franchise. I’m partial to fun vs. anguish, but unless Nolan totally drops the ball, 2012 will mark the official arrival of a generation of action-fantasy directors who deploy CGI as effortlessly as greats like Ray Harryhausen and Frank Oz used models and puppetry in the 70s and 80s—like Harryhausen and Oz did then, filmmakers today can focus on using their tools well, in the service of movies that aren’t just expensive, but are actually good movies.
I’m focusing on the big picture here, because there will be thousands of comic geeks (I use the term with great affection) who will take care of the necessary business of parsing details about how these characters are handled. I’m a little vague on the details of the Avengers’ history—I haven’t even seen all the recent movies introducing the characters who figure here—so it’s testament to Whedon’s achievement that this movie pleased me as well as hard-core comics fans like my friend Lisa, who was at the same screening I was and later tweeted that “it was like looking into the sun.”
The plot is remarkably coherent, as far as these things go. Troublemaking Norse god Loki (you may remember him from the movie named after his brother Thor) has forged an unholy alliance—I love that I get paid to write stuff like this—with an alien race who have a motive straight out of H.G. Wells (basically, they just like to conquer stuff) and a look straight out of H.R. Giger (specifically, his work on Alien). When Loki opens a portal between the alien world and our own, who you gonna call?
Not the Ghostbusters—which in 2012 is probably for the best—but a group of superheroes who blessedly include the man who’s finally given the 21st century the kind of wisecracking realist once played so well by Bill Murray and Harrison Ford: Robert Downey Jr., whose Anthony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) anchors The Avengers to reality precisely by acknowledging its unreality. When another character rhetorically asks Stark what he is without his iron suit, he shrugs. “Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist.” You know. Those superhero day jobs.
Whedon was reportedly hired for this picture in part because of his skill at corralling large egos, and the egos aren’t the only things he keeps in check in this long (143 minutes) but tight feature. Every character is given a well-sketched personal conflict, and Whedon—working with a fine cast that’s finest where it most needs to be—paints the characters so concisely that he leaves room to let sparks fly among them.
The film has great fun with Chris Evans’s square Captain America (“There’s only one God, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that,” quips the Captain dismissively when informed that Thor and Loki are deities), and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk manages to provide both the film’s best comic relief and its most poignant moment. This Hulk is so good that he more than makes up for the miserably failed reboots with Eric Bana (2003) and Edward Norton (2008); aptly, when green, the Hulk is voiced by the irreplaceable Lou Ferrigno.
The action comes in staccato bursts of quick clashes, and Whedon handles it well, tying the shots together so fluidly that applause occasionally burst out at the preview screening out of sheer appreciation, I gathered, that we actually understood what just happened there! The action isn’t what makes this film great—a scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) piggy-backs an alien speeder will beg unfavorable comparisons to the virtuoso Endor scene in Return of the Jedi—but it’s good enough to excite rather than distract, Whedon using the freedom of CGI to create a rich variety of textures and scale. I’m not saying The Avengers is Citizen Kane, but it’s one of the rare fantasy-action films that makes you think that maybe the director possibly watched Welles’s famous depiction of outrageous grandeur and learned from it—which is praise enough.
The climactic battle takes place in New York City, the only completely acceptable place (except maybe Tokyo) for a climactic superhero battle scene to happen. (As my friend Bob observed about Thor, it was hard to get very excited about a movie where a battle of the gods barely manages to trash a trailer park.) The long middle section of The Avengers is set on a flying aircraft carrier (don’t even ask how that works), putting an aerial twist on the old standby plot convention Roger Ebert refers to as the Impregnable Fortress Impregnated. The Avengers also put me in mind of Ebert’s observation that in most cinematic fistfights, “it sounds like they’re beating the hell out of a Naugahyde sofa with a ping-pong paddle.” For the metal-and-man Avengers, it sounds like the foley team threw a rain cover over a Buick and whacked at it with a nine-iron.
Here’s another golf-related simile: when you have a shot at going over a lake and landing on a green, you know the chances are good that you’re about to waste that golf ball and penalize yourself two strokes. But if you keep trying, over and over, and learning from your mistakes, eventually you’ll nail that shot and roll it right up to the cup, and you’ll say, yes. That’s why I took that shot. Any fan of superhero movies has sat through a lot of stinkers, but go see The Avengers, and afterwards, you’ll stand up and think, yes. That’s why they make $220 million dollar movies. This one’s an ace.
3 notes | Permalink