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Archive for May, 2012

Kiss the Girls (1997)

Admittedly, I am not a book reader.  Whatever my issue, I find it difficult to sit down and read a full novel.  So, while I have a good amount of say regarding this film, I have no frame of reference on the James Patterson novel it was based on.  I like the Alex Cross character very much in what Morgan Freeman has given us, but with all of two films from more than a decade ago, it’s never been much of a film franchise.  Both this and its follow-up Along Came A Spider (whose novel is actually a prequel to this) have similar problems, but Kiss the Girls is definitely the better of the two.  Still, it doesn’t live up to the potential it could’ve had.

Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) travels to North Carolina to investigate the apparent kidnapping of his niece Naomi.  The local police have the evidence, but not the investigative intuitiveness to put the pieces together.  Meanwhile, the strong willed, yet compassionate surgeon Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is abducted and later escapes from this collector and killer of exceptional woman who calls himself “Casanova.”  Now, aided by the sole escapee, Cross begins an investigation that takes him from one coast to the other and back trying to identify and capture the disillusioned “great lover.”

The actors in the film’s central focus, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, are both very good.  Judd makes Kate a very empowering character from the start, and she is easily presented as someone you can care about and feel strength from throughout.  She’s physically tough, is confident, determined, but also, shows that she has vulnerability and compassion.  It’s great that the film introduces her prior to her abduction in order for the audience to see the woman as she is naturally.  From there, we are emotionally connected with her through her trauma and recovery.   She was a strong person before, and this experience merely solidifies those qualities within her.  Judd has plenty of gravitas and vibrancy.  She keeps Kate McTiernan a forefront character that continues to stand tall throughout the narrative.  It easily demonstrates the strong core of Ashley Judd’s acting ability, and why she has become such a revered talent over these many years.

Freeman is masterful as Alex Cross.  He’s always been a very intellectual actor allowing the audience to see the gears turning in his head, and establishing a very particular manner for his roles.  He inhabits them all well, and makes them subtly distinct.  In this role, he shows us one of the best investigative minds in fiction.  Cross is able to see the lines of connection that others can’t because he’s so detail oriented in his work, the same as Freeman is with his acting.  When he walks into the squad room with all the abduction victims on the board, it doesn’t take him long to put it all together to understand why they were picked, and what Casanova’s agenda is.  Just how Freeman’s eyes operate in a scene say so much of what Alex Cross is thinking and deducing.  Cross is also tempered.  He is calm and calculating in his investigative process.  While the local cops are all a little smarmy and egotistical, Cross maintains a cool perspective on everything bringing a serious psychology to the case.  He rarely allows his emotions to dictate his behavior, but even if he doesn’t show it, they can influence it.  There’s no denying his personal stakes in this investigation, and that alters how he handles everything.  In an interrogation scene, he can’t help but become enraged as a sleazy suspect talks sexually ill of his niece, and that shows that Cross is just as human as anyone.  While he can remain focused and professional, maintaining his cool in dangerous situations, he has his limits.  Still, he is able to rebound, admit his errors, and ultimately tie things up.  Alex Cross, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is truly a fascinating characters full of potential.  However, despite the strength of the character and the actor, that is not enough to lift the film into exceptional territory.

The unfortunate side of things is that the story and how it unfolds lacks compelling development.  The bi-coastal killer plotline with the Gentleman Caller essentially has no pertinent relevance to hunting down Casanova.  It comes off as a divergence ultimately added just to throw in some gunfire and stakeout scenes.  While it does connect with the main story, it’s ancillary.  You could cut it out, and it wouldn’t make a real difference towards the capture of Casanova.  It only amounts to a gunshot echoing through the woods that leads Cross to finding the lair, and in time, they likely would’ve found it, regardless.  This subplot is there so the characters have somewhere to go and something to do until the final act with its weak twist ending.

This is a negative mark against both Alex Cross films.  They both have these twist endings that come out of nowhere which have no organic flow from the story or characters.  By how Kiss the Girls is presented, Casanova could’ve turned out to be anyone or no one.  Casanova ends up being a character that’s been there in the film all along, but no one knew it.  The problem is that there is zero evidence presented throughout the movie towards that end.  You take Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for an example here.  When you watch that movie for the first time, you see his performance in one way.  However, on repeat viewings you see an entirely different performance because of what you discover at the film’s ending.  Spacey himself hasn’t changed, but your perception of the character has.  You see a subtle thing here or there that does seem peculiar, and does add up to something more substantive and telling later on.  Unfortunately, none of that is here in Kiss the Girls.  You can’t re-watch this movie and pick up on something you didn’t notice before in the performance of the actor who turns out to be Casanova.  It’s played straight in every scene as if the character is exactly who he appears to be, but then, the performance changes entirely once the twist ending begins.  That is very shallow and generic work from script to direction and beyond.  A movie with a twist ending like this needs those little clues you can pick up on throughout, but not be able to fully assemble them until our protagonist has.  However, when you look back, you see how all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly.  None of that exists in this screenplay or film.  The ultimate reveal of who Casanova is turns out to be unsatisfying because of this issue.

This is not to say that the actor in question handles this turn poorly.  It’s quite an exceptional  performance that has substance and an unsettling quality.  He sells it well, and doesn’t need a mask or shadows to make him appear intimidating and chilling.  It’s simply the execution and lack of pre-existing evidence to that effect which is the failure here.  Not to mention, the film ends kind of flat.  It’s more about structure than anything.  Casanova is dispatched with, and the film ends.  All of the character resolution happens before this to make way for the surprise twist after the audience has let their guard down.

I feel like Alex Cross is an extraordinary character inserted into a mediocre film.  The story structure is not tight enough to remain thoroughly satisfying, and the mystery of Casanova is not complex enough to really take advantage of Cross’ compelling intellect.  There is more mystery about finding Casanova than actually exploring him.  In another similar film like Manhunter, it’s all about putting every little piece of forensic and psychological evidence of the killer together to drive the protagonist of Will Graham towards confronting and stopping Francis Dollarhyde.  Finding him is as important as discovering who he is from the inside out because they are symbiotic.  It’s a chain reaction of one revelation begetting another.  Within Alex Cross’ first moments on the case, he’s already figured out Casanova from the inside out, and it just becomes about finding and identifying him.  However, this happens so early on in the storyline that actually finding Casanova requires the film to tangle up in a lot of unnecessary plot developments.  It’s a great aspect of the character of Cross that he can do that, but it’s also a complication in the plot progression.  Every new plot development is a red herring.  It misdirects the characters towards something that ends up at a dead end, and only serves to pad out the run time.  Also, the Gentleman Caller subplot almost immediately can be perceived as a bust to the audience because his behavior is such a stark opposite to what we experienced with Casanova earlier.  Casanova is not a violent, impulsive person.  He’s more subdued and even tempered.  It’s not a good swerve in the plot, and results in no furthering of the plot or characters.

On the positive side, the cinematography of Aaron Schneider envelopes this film with excellent visual atmosphere.  There is definitely some neo noir edge present with strong blacks, a little haze, and solid blue tones throughout.  There’s enough light and shadow at play with a restrained color scheme to create a consistently tense visual style.  It never gets too heavy, but it surely sets the tone of the world we’re delving into.  Despite the shortcomings in the screenplay and story, Schneider’s work makes Kiss the Girls look especially good.  The camera work itself might not be of particular note, but its subtle touches punctuate the right dramatic beats.  One can take or leave the heavy use of Dutch angles in the final scene, but it’s probably more of sign of the times in the late 90s.

Adding upon that is the very good production design which gives life and personality to various environments.  The police squad room looks authentic looking to have many years of use behind it.  Casanova’s lair has its peculiar warmth in stark contrast to Dr. Rudolph’s cold, modern home.  I like how Kate notes that it doesn’t feel like Casanova, and that design element alone fuel hers and Cross’ inquisitive minds.  The environments reflect the characters that primarily inhabit them, and the cinematography captures them perfectly.

The supporting cast is good, some better than others, but none of them have much importance to the story being told.  They serve their purposes and roles well, but in most cases, they are easily forgettable.  Plus, I find it surprising that the always astounding Brian Cox is wasted in a minor role as Chief Hatfield.  He puts in a strong performance, but why use such a powerful, diverse actor in what is essentially a nothing role?  This film just seems to have a bad habit of wasting its potential.

I don’t have much exposure to director Gary Fleder’s other work.  I recall seeing Runaway Jury several years ago, but it was more the performances from the heavyweight cast that made the impression more than anything.  Here, it’s obvious he has a good handle on how to present the genre, and get some stellar performances out of his main actors.  However, the loose storyline and pointless plot developments show that he’s not so much interested in presenting a tightly wrapped, riveting, or smart thriller as just going by the numbers.  He tries to pass this off as a mystery when there’s only enough genuine storyline to fit into a 30-45 minute film.  Everything else is pointless filler that amounts to nothing.  Again, I do not know if these issues exist in James Patterson’s novel, but in this film, that’s what I perceive.

Kiss the Girls had the right base elements for a hell of a good thriller with an amazing lead character backed by an equally great actor. Ashley Judd anchors the film well giving Freeman someone to carry the weight with him.  The film is boosted further with some nicely atmospheric noir cinematography. The premise is good but underdeveloped.  There’s no real chase involved between Cross and Casanova.  Nothing where one has to be more cunning than the other to stay ahead.  That takes away the urgency, or at least, the relevant immediacy of the plot.  You never get the feeling that there’s a connection between the hunter and the hunted, and the best films of this genre establish that in one way or another.  Casanova never reacts to Cross as genuine threat, and Cross is too busy chasing down false leads to truly be in sync with his prey.  Kiss the Girls is a decent thriller that is generally enjoyable, but lacks enough relevant plot developments to make it anything more than average.  Again, Alex Cross feels like a potentially iconic character waiting for a film that is as intelligent and intriguing as he is.  Whether we will eventually get that remains to be seen.


Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

This is an unusual horror franchise in that it never really took off.  The original is a bonafide classic of extreme, gritty frantic madness.  From there, it went in all kinds of sporadic directions never really settling into a consistent style.  The first sequel ventured off into quirkiness, and the later sequel disregarded continuity entirely creating what is considered one of the worst films you could ever fear to endure.  This entry was a little more stable in line with slashers of the era as it came from New Line Cinema.  They honestly had a good approach that would make the franchise accessible to the general horror masses, but not laying back on the blood letting.  However, this was the age where the MPAA was striking back at gory horror, and hacking and slashing the films down to extremely tame levels.  The volume and style of violence in this film is comparable to any gory horror film of the last decade., but in 1989, this was threatened with an X rating (prior to the introduction of the NC-17 rating).  Goes to show just how inconsistent the MPAA has been over the decades.

It has been several years since Leatherface last terrorized the Texan backwoods with his Sawyer family, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t continued his cannibalistic ways.  In fact, Leatherface has been “adopted” into a brand new family of crazed Texan cannibals.  The film begins with an effective scene of Bubba “Leatherface” Sawyer (R.A. Mihailoff) sewing together a fresh mask of flesh while one of his victims attempts to escape, but gets gutted with a chain saw instead.  From then on, we follow the eventful journey of siblings Ryan & Michelle (William Butler & Kate Hodge) as they drive from California to Florida to deliver a car to their father, but they’ve just entered into the desolate Texas landscape.  As they drive into the night, Texas state authorities are cleaning up a hazardous mess of bodies which have decomposed into toxic material – remnants of past Sawyer family massacres.  The brother and sister pairing drive into the next day and a gas station where they encounter a hitchhiking cowboy named Tex (Viggo Mortensen,  The Prophecy, The Lord of the Rings) and the wild-eyed store owner Alfredo (Tom Everett).  Tex gets friendly with Michelle and Ryan, to a lesser degree, but the cordial moment is cut short when Alfredo pulls a shotgun on the threesome, and the siblings haul ass out of there, watching Fredo blast away at them and Tex.  The two siblings quickly take off down a deserted road, but soon find themselves stalked by Leatherface and his new cannibalistic and homicidal family.  Ultimately, their only hope for escape is in Benny (Ken Foree), a survivalist who not only has the firepower, but also the training to take down the entire psychotic family.

To start off, this was a very troubled production.  I can’t even begin to list the ways, but let’s just say that the film was so excessively violent that the repeated runs through the MPAA forced the release date to be delayed from early November, 1989 to January, 1990.  At one time, director Jeff Burr was fired on Friday and re-hired on Monday.  The shooting schedule was rushed, and the budget was tight.  Also, I would have to say that calling this a “massacre” is false advertising as only two people outside of Leatherface’s adoptive family are killed in this film.  There’s a lot of violence, but not a lot of death.  Although, despite all this, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is quite a good film.

The cast is solid, very solid.  There are no amateurs here like in many slasher films.  R.A. Mihailoff was an experienced stuntman at the time, and did a great job as a slightly more evolved Leatherface that is more focused in his mayhem than before, but still remains very youthful in mind and impulsive in action.  He was also one strong dude having to lug that HUGE 80 lbs chain saw around almost everyday.  William Butler had some previous experience in slasher flicks, but this was his most featured role and he does well in it.  As Ryan, he’s a bit pensive and uneasy trying to deal with heavy situations.  Of course, Viggo Mortensen delivers an entertaining and intriguing performance as the crazed Tex with a bit of an odd cross-dressing undertone.  He pulls off the insanity and the charm very well, and proves to be a solid and impressive actor more than a decade before The Lord of the Rings made him a household name.  Viggo was a great actor that existed under the radar for a long time before that big break, and even this early on, you can see his quality and versatility.  Tom Everett really fits perfectly as the wild-eyed, fidgety, and probably schizophrenic Alfredo.  Definitely a classic character for these films.  Dawn of the Dead alumnus Ken Foree brings a lot of energy and a decent amount of humor to the role of Benny.  He truly endears himself as the hero of the film whereas there are usually only perilous heroines.  Benny gets to kick some ass, and really give our psychotic villains someone to tangle with.  Also, with the character being an armed survivalist, we get some nice action scenes and fiery moments.  Definitely a worthwhile and enjoyable character.  Finally, there’s the female lead in Kate Hodge.  She really rates high as Michelle among the other female leads of the series who go through maddening events and experiences, but this time, she doesn’t breakdown into a traumatized pile of emotional goo – so to speak.  Michelle comes out as a far tougher character, and proves that she might not only survive, but also endure in the aftermath of this Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

KNB EFX have been an industry leader in special make-up effects for a long time, and this is another excellent example of why.  The MPAA would not have so much an issue with the gore level if Kurtzman, Nicotero, and Berger weren’t so amazingly good at their jobs.  Everything has such detail and texture to really drive home the squirming realism of the graphic violence and trauma that characters are put through.  While the film itself might not be very highly regarded, the effects work here should be given high praise and special notoriety.

Cinematographer James L. Carter gives the film a very strong look.  Personally, I see a resemblance in the visual tone of this film and Jason Goes To Hell, despite having different cinematographers.  Both films have a very dark, dense landscape at night with a tinge of blue that makes these two films look very similar.  It adds a more grounded, hardened look to the filmed imagery.  The filmmakers wanted this to have a real horror feel, and maintained a gritty look throughout that really enhances the horror aspects entirely.

I believe Jeff Burr did a fine quality job despite the turbulence of production. He crafted a film that probably shouldn’t have turned out nearly as good as it did.  The screenplay was well-written by David J. Schow in his first break.  While he had been writing material for a long while, this was the first script of his to get produced.  Although, he hasn’t had a wondrous career with a couple of Critters films, an episode of The Outer Limits, and two episodes of Ridley & Tony Scott produced anthology series The Hunger under his belt, but he did deliver us the screenplay to the cult classic The Crow.  So, he is highly capable of delivering brilliant work, but hasn’t had the rich opportunities to demonstrate that much.  All in all, he did a good job here with probably the only consistently worthwhile TCM sequel.

I’m not giving this a great endorsement because it is almost perfectly formulaic for a Texas Chain Saw Massacre film, but it’s the characters where this movie holds strong.  The story is mostly a direct template from the first film, but the characters are more original than the story.  There’s also more suspenseful and intense action than before or since.  Also, I like this design of Leatherface the best, and who can resist the massive chain saw given to him with the phrase “The Saw is Family” engraved on the side?  Mihailoff’s representation of old Bubba Sawyer has a lot more aggression and coordination than before.  Kate Hodge brings a much stronger and tougher heroine to the series, and I can’t help but enjoy every role I see Viggo Mortensen in.  Plus, there is an entertainment factor here beyond the terror, but it never overwhelms or damages the integrity of the horror elements.  So, I do recommend this film to anyone looking for a hardcore slasher film with a healthy dose of gore and action.  The DVD that’s been available for a long while has both the theatrical R-rated and full unrated cut of the movie.  It’s always been nice how New Line Cinema was generally comprehensive about those things, but any true horror fan would likely never mind the censored version, anyway.  Considering the sporadic quality of this franchise, I feel this entry is among the most accessible, sensical, and satisfying of them all.  As for the remake and prequel?  I do have reviews for them, but I’m saving them up for the September / October Halloween season.  A long way to go, but I’m definitely saving the meatiest horror reviews for that part of the year.


The Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios has spent a lot of careful time and resources into building their cinematic universe.  For the record, these films include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  They have all been excellent films that I have highly enjoyed, and found a lot of depth and strength in.  After many studios licensing the rights to their characters, and coming up with very mixed results, Marvel finally took it upon themselves to do it right.  Its ultimate culmination is The Avengers, and while it is a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, there is an emotional depth that it lacks which its predecessors were quite rich with.  These are great characters realized exceptionally well by a stellar cast, and balanced well by a filmmaker who specializes in ensemble casts.  Still, there is plenty to discuss on both the positive and negative side here.

When the Asgardian enemy Loki (Tom Hiddelston) arrives on Earth to utilize a cosmic power to unleash the alien force the Chitauri to destroy humanity, the director of the covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), proceeds to unite a mismatched team of superheroes as the Avengers.  There is the charismatic billionaire industrialist and scientific genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man.  Loki’s brother, the Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth).  The super soldier and World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), a man out of his time and era after being frozen in the arctic for decades.  There is also the brilliant scientist Dr. Bruce Banner who becomes the monstrous Hulk when provoked.  And the two master assassins Clint “HawkEye” Barden (Jeremy Renner), and the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson).  This immensely powerful collection of extraordinary people must learn to function as a team in order to save the world.

There are some mixed qualities here, and I can’t help but just get the negative off my chest.  First off, the invading aliens, the Chitauri, come off as a completely generic and disposable force.  They are given no build up or personality in the film.  They could be anything or anyone, it doesn’t make a difference.  No threat is built into who they are, just that they are a hostile force invading our planet.  These days, we get numerous alien invasion movies per year – such as Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship, Skyline, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon – and so, this is a well treaded concept that requires more effort behind it to make it fresh, unique, and better than the rest.  Not to mention, the design of the Chitauri ships and technology is very evocative of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  So, it feels even more tired and generic.  Ultimately, they never seem to be more than the heroes can handle.  They are easily dispatched with to the point where it seems like the Chitauri are the ones hopelessly outmatched.  The filmmakers throw in a mild moment where the Chitauri gain an upper hand, but it’s not enough to sell the epic resonance of the battle.  While I am not fanatic for or against Michael Bay, I do have to say that, in this area of filmmaking, Joss Whedon is no Michael Bay.  Everything that was done in the climax of The Avengers was done on an exponentially more cinematically epic scale by Michael Bay in the last Transformers movie.  It simply had more scope, more dire consequences, and bigger stakes.

Also, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Whedon shot this in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  All the other Marvel films have been filmed in the far more cinematic format of 2.40:1, my personal favorite.  These days, almost all major studio films are shot in 2.40:1, the widest film format in current use.  The use of the standard 16×9 format you see on most any current television show just takes something away from the visual potential of this film.  When it’s meant to be the epic culmination of this franchise to date, you’d think they’d go the extra mile to boost the visual format.  Of course, this is all a personal irritant of mine.  Most people won’t even pick up on it, let alone have it affect their experience of the film.  The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey is generally good with a couple of impressive shots, but I just feel like some of the composition would’ve been tighter and stronger with that wider format.

Now, let me shift into the positive for a while to better reflect my mixed feelings on the movie.  While we already know from the previous Marvel Studios films that the cast is fantastic, the question is how well are their characters handled and realized?  Quite well.  The good thing about bringing in Joss Whedon is that he does done nothing but work with ensemble casts for the last fifteen years.  All of his shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, & Dollhouse – have been as such, and he always did a remarkable job balancing out the various personalities of those characters.  In The Avengers, everyone has their fair time to establish themselves and make an impression.  However, it seems mostly focused on Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, respectively.  One might’ve expected a more prominent role for Captain America since he’s really the true leader of the team in the comics, or at least, co-leader with Stark.  However, his forefront time is really in the heat of battle, but still, there seems to be an emotional resonance that is missing with him.  I would’ve expected some substantive material with him coming to grips with being a man out of time as a symbol of an era long past.  I’d like to see Steve Rogers trying to care about and save a world he doesn’t fit into anymore.  I’m sure they are saving that for his proper solo sequel, but it feels heavily glossed over here.

Now, everyone that’s taken on the role of Dr. Bruce Banner has had their own style to it.  I recently caught some of Ang Lee’s Hulk on cable, and man, is that an atrocious film.  Beyond the stylistic gripes I have with it, Eric Bana didn’t strike me as much to be interested in, but in such a overbloated film, it’s tough to really care.  Edward Norton was far superior in the role, and I really liked The Incredible Hulk film from 2008.  His Banner was very Bill Bixby-esque, but still with its own identity and drive fueled by Norton’s creativity and talent.  Mark Ruffalo’s performance is distinctly different than Norton’s, but still quite good and interesting.  His Banner is a bit more awkward, and less socially comfortable.  So, he’s a bit of an eccentric genius, and while the development is never detailed, Banner has evolved from his struggles in The Incredible Hulk.  Yes, while the role was re-cast, that film is still part of continuity.  Ruffalo makes Banner quite interesting as both a sympathetic and admirable person whose initial purose in the film is scientific until circumstances require the green beast to be unleashed.  Generally, it comes down to taste in how you prefer Banner to be portrayed if you like Ruffalo in the role or not, but I found his interpretation quite satisfying.

Downey remains hard to compete with.  The charisma and charm of his Tony Stark can be scene stealing, but it remains in line with the character’s ego and personality.  He and Ruffalo share a lot of screentime, and they have good chemistry.  When it’s just them, the Stark charisma is toned down a little as he seems to enjoy having another brilliant mind to connect with.  Tony appears to admire Dr. Banner, but constantly prods him about unleashing the Hulk, as if it’s a joke.  It’s just like Tony Stark to dance with some danger.

I still love Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He just brings a powerful presence and majesty with him.  I reviewed Thor here some months back, and I gave it glowing praise.  I think of all the upcoming Marvel Studios sequels it will be Thor 2 that I most anticipate.  The vast possibilities with the character just excite me.  Hemsworth continues to be an excellent choice for this character able to bring solid acting talent along with great physical ability and a strong presence worthy of a god.  He has a lot of formidable acting talents around him, and he stands tall amongst them.

What the filmmakers did with Jeremy Renner’s HawkEye changed my mind about the character.  Before, I couldn’t grasp what an arrow slinging marksman and a gun toting lady spy could contribute to combating an alien invasion when they are surrounded by such super powered and technology enhanced heroes.  I loved how Clint Barton helped with spotting strategy in the battle, giving tips to Iron Man on how to out-maneuver the Chitauri’s aircraft.  Plus, I loved his arrowhead selector.  Different arrowheads for different purposes, and with a touch of a button, he could have the arrow mechanically shift to another selection.  Explosive arrowheads really inflicted some damage.  Black Widow did well in the combat with the foot soldiers using some of their tech against them.  Both Renner and Johansson are given their time to show a connection between their characters and some depth.  It’s a very nice touch to make sure neither gets lost amongst the larger than life characters.

Tom Hiddelston as Loki remains a fun, menacing, and treacherous villain.  He’s an excellent actor who fills the role well, and conveys Loki’s ideals and intentions with exceptional vigor.  However, the problem is not the performance, it’s the threat level.  Loki himself gets beat up on by almost the entire team throughout the movie – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk all give him a beat down.  In combat, he’s not formidable.  Only through his use of magically empowered manipulation does he become problematic.  He uses his skills of trickery and deceit to attempt to forge a wedge between the heroes, to get them at each other’s throats, but that is only a small cog in his plan, not his endgame.  This ties back into my initial negative mark against the film.  In the end, there is no sense of a perceived insurmountable threat here.  Loki can’t hold his own in battle, and his invading force is terribly generic with no sense of what true destructive power they possess.  This is only one of a few failings of the film.

Since the film has to spend so much time dealing with the character dynamics of a reluctantly formed team, there’s no time to really build up an emotional resonance in the main plot.  Because the enemy is so nonspecific no one has a real, direct personal and emotional conflict to resolve.  Emotion is ultimately what makes a story epic.  Explosions and flashy action sequences might have visual scope, but they alone don’t make the story epic.  You need emotional stakes.  The Avengers are fighting to save the planet, but there are no ideals they are fighting for, no thematic elements in the story for them to grapple with that will make them more than what they were at the start.  All the other Marvel Studios films have had these elements to varying degrees.  In their respective solo films, Thor had to evolve from a impulsive, thick-headed warrior to a noble, more wiser leader.  Tony Stark had to stop being a self-centered merchant of war to becoming a selfless hero intent on stopping war.  Captain America had to learn to take his weakness and turn into his strength, to push himself to becoming the hero he knew he could be, despite everyone else’s doubts.  Bruce Banner had to struggle with the monster inside him.  If he could not be rid of him, he had to find a way to control him.  In The Avengers, there is no substantive emotional or character development.  They just learn to work as a team, which is important, but that just leaves the film feeling flat.  Again, the threat level is never build up enough to draw out emotional strain.  While it’s certainly not as shallow as a Michael Bay film, to turn the earlier comparison around, it definitely doesn’t add up to its predecessors.  The only moment where the filmmakers try to milk some emotional poignancy feels clichéd and contrived.  It’s just there as a cheap heartstrings manipulation which evaporates within a matter of minutes.  It has no real lasting impact.

“A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story.  People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves.  A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That was said by George Lucas, circa 1983, and is the filmmaker quote that has held the most weight and relevance with me through the years.  Why I’m mentioning it here is that while this film has very good visual effects, none of them left a real impression on me because the story was so weak and thin.  It’s not a bad story or that there’s a lack of one, it’s just not very meaty.  Action scenes don’t hold much weight unless the story has enough substance.  While the visual effects are generally good, the one CGI fall off for me was with the Hulk.  Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk was just down right bad on so many levels, and was done by Industrial Light & Magic,  Digital effects house Rhythm & Hues got it perfect with Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.  They made the Hulk visceral, textured, and raw.  He had realistic qualities in his muscular structure, and the weight in his movements.  In The Avengers, the digital effects have gone back to ILM, and the Hulk goes back to not looking very good.  He seems almost flabby with too much flesh jiggling around instead of the tight physique he had in the Edward Norton film.  He looks partly cartoonish, and that is not good at all.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t one good dramatic transformation from Banner into the Hulk.  Having grown up with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, getting that good transformation has always been a necessary element to my satisfaction of the character.  The two transformations we get are not impressive.  The first is all in shadows, showing us next to nothing.  The latter is far too smooth, and done in slow motion.  It doesn’t reflect the rage-filled metamorphosis of the Hulk.

The action scenes are impressively well handled.  They are all exciting and unique with their own rallying moments.  Each hero is given the time to shine.  Everything really gets going when Captain America is sent to capture Loki in Germany.  Cap’ gets a ‘standing tall’ moment with a solid, yet succinct speech after saving a man’s life.  As the fight goes on, Iron Man joins in, and then, Thor makes his first appearance looking to retrieve his mischievous brother so to bring him back to Asgard.  Then, Iron Man and Thor throw down themselves, and it’s just great stuff.  Later on, as Loki manipulates the team to force his plan forward on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Banner Hulks out under Loki’s subtle influence and fights with Thor.  That is one excellent fight sequence as you’ve got to know how they match up, strength wise, and seeing Hulk fighting to pick up Thor’s hammer, yet not being able to (since he is not worthy of the power), is also a stellar touch.  Many of the action scenes in the early half of the film help to evolve the team dynamic.  Showing Captain American and Iron Man working together to trying to get the hellicarrier’s engine operational again was good.  The Captain doesn’t know jack about modern technology, let alone any of Stark’s scientific talk, but they make it work.  Trust is slowly built up as they shake loose their individual trepidations about teaming up.

All in all, the character interactions are well balanced and greatly played by the cast, and they are the richness that makes the film enjoyable and entertaining while wrapped up in some exciting action sequences.  There are plenty of light-hearted beats and flourishes of humor that give it levity.  It opens up the characters further than before to be even more accessible and entertaining.  This is sort of the superhero equilivent of Ocean’s Eleven.  An ensemble cast rich with talent and chemistry that know how to share the spotlight and maintain the right tone throughout.

Leading up to this film I was not enticed by the marketing campaign.  It was just big explosions, action scenes, and a few comical quips from Downey.  It was not giving me what I wanted to see.  It was only a little word of mouth that gave me some hope for The Avengers.  So, while the film was not as bad as I feared it would be, it certainly wasn’t as good as many people have said it would be.  There is a lot of good action with good effects work and solid character realization and execution, but the plot just doesn’t have much substance.  I don’t get excited over spectacle alone.  I need a strong plot and story to make the action mean something.  The film could have been more than it was with more attention to thematic material and emotional depth.  Some fluff action or comical scenes could’ve been excised to make room for more character building segments.  Personally, I just ask for more than this from a superhero film with a lineage of strong, well-rounded outings like Superman, The Crow, Blade, Iron Man, Captain America, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight.  So, it’s sad for me to say that The Avengers is the least of the Marvel Studios films when it should have been the best.  Regardless, it is still a mass audience crowd pleaser, and for many, that is all they desire.  I just know that the filmmakers should’ve strived for more than that as others have before them.