Saturday, May 12, 2012

Movie Reviews-The Avengers, Bunraku, Black Sunday, Don't Be Afraid of The Dark

The Avengers
directed by Joss Whedon
I best know Whedon as director/creator of Serenity/Firefly. He brings some of that trademark humor to The Avengers. Look, this is an enjoyable film but it's not by any means one that is plot driven. It's a summer extravaganza flick and must be understood and enjoyed on that level. It is also as good an example as any just why American made films dominate the domestic and international marketplace. They're entertaining. It really is that simple. If you make quality movies and have good people marketing them you can do well. That said, as Disney's failed turkey John Carter shows, no one knows ahead of time just what any one particular film will do. But The Avengers is breaking box office records and will likely continue to do so.

So, what kind of movie is it? Comic book movies do tend to skew male and young just as comic book readers do. The Avengers is not that different in that regard. However there are "realistic" (to the extent that you can talk about realistic anything in a comic book film) female characters who are not sexpots nor are they just there to be rescued by male characters. You simply don't do the kind of business this movie has done just by appealing to boys. The movie runs a tad long at roughly 2 hours and 22 minutes but I don't think it's all that noticeable. 

What's it about? Good old Loki (Tom Hiddleston) (last seen "dying" in Thor) has reappeared and boy is he upset. Wanting to get back at his brother Thor and really everybody in the Universe he has shown up to steal the Tesseract (multidimensional power source last seen in Captain America) and make a deal with the other dimensional Chitauri (reptilian looking aliens) to serve as Loki's army to invade earth, and presumably Asgard and other places too. As S.H.I.E.L.D Agents are working with the Tesseract , it activates and Loki enters, enslaving S.H.I.E.L.D agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and scientist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard), taking the Tesseract and killing more than a few agents on his way out, but not S.H.I.E.L.D leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

In order to (ahem) save the world Fury puts together a team of extraterrestrials , superheroes and extremely highly skilled agents. This team will be called The Avengers and will include Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor(Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and hopefully Hawkeye, if the team can manage to remove him from Loki's control. Under Loki's control Hawkeye is causing quite a bit of trouble for S.H.I.E.L.D. It must stop. Loki's storyline is simple I guess but that's what makes it work. He feels overlooked and intends to do whatever it takes to get the respect he feels he's due. Basically he's the Theon Greyjoy of Asgard.
Of course Nick Fury wouldn't be a spy if he didn't have a few hidden tricks up his sleeve that he's not telling this team. And just like any traditional sports movie/hero story/war movie the team has to put aside individual egos, distrust, pride and other motivations in order to succeed. This is fun to watch as the heroes show that superpowers or Asgardian heritage aside, they are just as human as anyone else on the planet.
Iron Man is convinced he's smarter than everyone else except maybe Banner and even if he weren't he really doesn't like taking orders. He also has some issues about working with the military-industrial complex. Thor doesn't believe anyone besides another god has jurisdiction to arrest, judge or kill Loki. And how do you argue with someone who throws lightning bolts when he gets annoyed? Bruce Banner is tired of everyone trying to bait him into turning into The Hulk. He wants to be left alone. Captain America literally embodies the military-industrial complex and has little patience for or understanding of sarcasm or cynicism. He thinks the answer to everything is to stop whining and follow orders-especially the ones he gives. Black Widow and Hawkeye have some unresolved personal issues with each other. Fury's supervisors are skeptical that this unconnected group of prima donnas can stop Loki and save the world. Gee do you think that they can really do it? Hmm. I wonder.

It's no spoiler to reveal that the Avengers do indeed save the world. The reason you see films like this is to enjoy the ride while getting there. And what a ride it is. From battle royales among the team (-i.e who would win between The Hulk and Thor) to amazing SFX like flying aircraft carriers, holographic computers, black holes, impossible archery shots, desperate last stands, heroes falling out of the sky and more, this film definitely appeals to your inner 12 year old boy. And even if you are not or have never been a 12 year old boy, check it out anyway. It's fun!!! And sometimes fun is really all a movie needs. As mentioned, despite the almost inherent sexiness of Scarlett Johansson, this film is very light on any sort of deliberate sex appeal. Black Widow is a member of the team. It's not her fault that people get distracted by her appearance and tell her things they shouldn't. I wonder if that happens to Johansson in real life. It seems like not getting flustered by a pretty face and inadvertently sharing your plans for world domination would be something that was taught in Evil Overlord 101. Some people in this film obviously weren't paying attention at Evil Academy the day that class was taught and it shows.
The Avengers also has some Whedon trademarked snappy dialogue and inside jokes. When Thor is ranting that Loki is his brother and thus can't possibly be judged by mere humans, he is told that Loki killed over 80 people. Without missing a beat Thor says Loki is adopted. Tony Stark wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt. The Hulk shows another member of the team that he bears grudges. There is no Ant-Man or Wasp so comic book purists be warned. The Pentagon did not assist with this film
“We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it,” Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. “To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film. Truth really is stranger than fiction because in some respects this film is an advertisement for many of the really cool military gadgets that we know about and probably more than a few that we don't. But so it goes I guess. Gwyneth Paltrow, Cobie Smulders, and Harry Dean Stanton have small roles. And as usual Marvel creator Stan Lee has a blink and you'll miss it cameo.

directed by Guy Moshe
This is perhaps the movie that The Warrior's Way could have been-stylistically that is. Much like The Warrior's Way the storyline isn't quite strong enough or vibrant enough to hold interest for the whole movie. And unlike The Warrior's Way there isn't really a strong female character. Since so much of what men do is for women, without some sort of feminine motivation for at least one of the heroes (although you could argue a secondary character may have had that) the film sort of flounders a bit. This is despite the fact that Bunraku probably had a better known cast than The Warrior's Way.

I really liked the style and sense of unreality that permeated this film. Bunraku is a form of stylized Japanese puppetry. Between the Technicolors, fades, narration and reveals, the theater like staging of many key fights, the lush sets and camera tricks, you certainly did get the feel that this could have been puppets on a string. This is one of the better looking movies I've seen in a while. In some spots it reminded me of Sin City. There has been a catastrophic global war that has left humanity divided into small groups. Guns have been outlawed and evidently aren't available any more but knives, fists and especially swords are still in usage.

In a small town only described as "east of the Atlantic" a group of elite killers hold sway. They of course have a much larger group of thugs and flunkies to do their bidding and extort payments from everyone in town. But the core of the group are ten killers of ever more deadly skill. Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd) is a well dressed almost dainty man whose talent with the sword is better than anyone else's while his speed is quite inhuman. But he's not the boss. Even #2 treads lightly around Killer #1, aka Nicola The Woodcutter (Ron Pearlman), the brutally fair and fairly brutal boss of the entire operation. Nicola doesn't allow people to see his face but does regularly test himself against people who seek his throne. To an extent Nicola is bored. He is starting to believe that he really is the best warrior to ever live and despairs of ever finding someone who can prove otherwise. At this point in his life Nicola wants to have a baby with his feisty, desperate and imprisoned lover Alexandra. (Demi Moore) Moore doesn't really have a whole lot to do here but she does manage to get on Killer #2's nerves as much as she can.
Two strangers enter town, both looking for a showdown with Nicola and his group. One is The Drifter (Josh Harnett), a cowboy with a quick temper, quicker fists and a taste for poker. The other is Yoshi (Gackt) a samurai swordsman of supreme skill who wants something back that Nicola stole. Both men are noticed by The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), something of a Retired Bada$$,  who uses their violent natures and single mindedness to help create an opportunity to take Nicola and his thugs down for good. He wants them to join forces.The Bartender may also have a hidden agenda in this as well. But he's not telling Yoshi or The Drifter his personal business. The Drifter and Yoshi don't necessarily like each other at first as each is concerned the other will complicate his ability to get what he wants from Nicola.

The men are of course noticed by Nicola's thugs and eventually by the ten killers themselves. Mayhem ensues. Ultimately this film is somewhat disappointing but boy did it look good. McKidd pretty much steals the show in all of his fight scenes.

Black Sunday
directed by Mario Bava
Many modern horror films rely too much on (female) nudity, extreme hyperviolence, taboo subjects (how many more incest loving cannibalistic rural families are out there?) and lurid special effects. Sometimes it's almost like horror films are akin to a heroin junkie who has discovered they just don't get the same rush any more and must inject stronger and stronger doses.
So from time to time it's interesting to go back to the movies of yesteryear that had to bring across fear or weirdness without being able to rely on any of the above tactics. Sure some of these films are obviously limited by this but others seem to have been better movies for the relative lack of explicitness. 

The Italian made Black Sunday is one such film. It shows that if you know what you're doing you can make a creepy disturbing erotic film that by modern standards doesn't really have excessive violence or nudity. Ironically, of course, by the standards of the day, Black Sunday was considered over the top and graphic. Go figure. It is amazing how much more artistic freedom/license we have today. That could be a good or bad thing as discussed.

Black Sunday was shot in black and white and dubbed into English. This is rather weird because some of the actors were obviously speaking English while others weren't.  It has a very sensuous gothic feel to it. The sets are sumptuous. The director, Mario Bava managed to simultaneously look forward with his gore and sexual inferences while also making a movie that dovetailed nicely with the classic Universal films, particularly 1931's Dracula.
Black Sunday is the film that made the English actress Barbara Steele a horror icon. With her almost freakishly large eyes, large forehead and full lips, she was a little different than what was usually considered to be attractive. She had a rather unsettling look that made her perfect for this film. Sometimes she could appear to be very beautiful other times she , well just watch.

The film opens up in Moldavia in the seventeenth century. The evil Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her lover/brother(?) Prince Igor Javuto (Artuto Dominici) have been condemned to die by her other brother, head of the Vajda clan, for the crimes of black magic, devil worship, vampirism and incest(?). Asa laughs at all this and curses her brother. She says she'll return in time to wreak vengeance upon her brother's descendants. She is branded and executed by having a devil's mask nailed to her face. Her body is placed in a crypt with charms and holy relics guarding it. Javuto is also executed and his body buried in a separate location. 200 years afterwards, two doctors are traveling in the Vajda lands. Through a combination of bad luck and total stupidity they manage to break the holy bonds keeping Asa in the grave and partially resurrect her spirit. 

Asa almost immediately in turn resurrects Javuto and sends him on a mission to kill the current Family Lord, Constantine Vajda (Enrico Olivieri). In the meantime, though the younger doctor, Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), has met Constantine's innocent young daughter Katia (Steele again) and has fallen head over heels in love. Neither doctor believes in the supernatural but as strange events start to pile up it becomes apparent that Asa means to completely possess Katia and live again in this world. And Asa needs blood.
This movie is ALL about mood, atmosphere and sets. Well maybe also it's a tiny bit about Steele's heaving bosom but that aside the sex is very muted, which is to say there isn't any.  It's the implications about sex and death than make this movie work. This is an excellent Saturday afternoon movie to watch. Some of the special effects were quite ingenious for their time. I thought the soundtrack was very impressive. Shooting in black and white gives this film a certain gravitas, or starkness that really makes things work. When a corpse pushes its way out of the grave or an eyeball is impaled you believe it really happened. 

Don't Be Afraid of The Dark
directed by Troy Nixey
I picked this film up to watch because Guillermo Del Toro was a producer. That was a mistake on my part. Sure the movie hit all of the usual shock moments and it has a few good scenes which mostly seem to owe something to Kubrick's The Shining (aren't big empty homes inherently creepy?) but for the most part this film didn't really go anywhere.

The story is that Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are architects/home restorers who either restore homes to bygone splendor for clients or flip them. I'm not sure and frankly I didn't care enough to rewind and find out. Bottom line is that they are fixing up a beautiful and very old home. Alex seems to be the brains of the operation. Kim just tags along and looks worried or supportive as required.

Alex's daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) is a depressed little girl who's sent by Alex's ex-wife to live with Alex. It's only supposed to be for a short period of time but it seems like the mother has taken the opportunity to dump Sally on Alex and run for the hills. Honestly in her position I'm not sure I wouldn't have done the same. Sally is an intensely morose disrespectful little girl. She makes it very clear she doesn't want to be there, talks smack to her dad and goes out of her way to show spite to Kim.

Anyway, while outside in the backyard, Sally discovers a hidden basement. The groundskeeper tries to pretend she's mistaken but Alex is thrilled to find the basement. It may add value and charm to the home. One of the grates is locked with a heavy chain. Near the grate Sally thinks she hears things. She starts spending more time in the basement. Of course the voices ask her to remove the locks from the grate.

Alex is under tremendous financial pressure to get the home finished so he has less and less patience for fairy stories his daughter is trying to tell him. But Kim, although rudely rebuffed at her initial attempt at maternal comfort, starts to listen to Sally, especially when there is a bloody incident in the basement. Sally becomes a bit more sympathetic as she tries to get proof that her new "friends" exist and mean to do her harm. Kim does some research on her own and is shocked by what she finds.

Again, this wasn't anything special and isn't worth running to rent/download. But if it's on and you have nothing better to do, why not watch it.

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