Saturday, 28 April 2012

Marvel Avengers Assemble

There is no shortage of highly-anticipated films due for release this year but only Marvel Avengers Assemble has seen a studio put this level of investment into its production. 

After all, Marvel Studios have been planning this for years. Ever since they became an independent studio in 2008, Marvel began to envisage an ensemble movie and it was always going to be the Avengers. And Marvel dived head-first into pursuing that goal. Entire multi-million pound films were green-lit (Thor, Captain America) solely to pave the way for this Marvel all-star mash-up, whilst numerous big-name actors were signed onto multiple-film contracts, including the famous Samuel L Jackson nine-film deal as Nick Fury. It is a level of commitment not seen by a studio since New Line decided to shoot three Lord of the Rings films at the same time. But would Marvel's faith in the Avengers project pay off?

Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes. Avengers is a perfect blockbuster: insanely action-packed, ludicrously fun and with lovable characters you want to endlessly quote on the drive home.

It could easily have gone wrong. Numerous superhero movies have failed to juggle multiple characters before now (Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3) and Avengers attempts to unite four characters fresh from headlining their own titular adventures, as well as an ever-growing cast of S.H.I.E.L.D agents. It seemed an impossible task.

Enter director and screenwriter Joss Whedon: the true hero of this movie. Whedon was certainly a left-field choice considering his sketchy track record. Admittedly, he has always produced high-quality television work - Buffy, Alias, Firefly, Dollhouse - but the latter two were cancelled and the Firefly spin-off movie, Serenity, bombed at the box office. Nevertheless, Marvel knew what they were doing.

Marvel realised this is not just Avengers Assemble but Avengers Ensemble and no-one can handle an ensemble cast like Joss Whedon. Just look at Firefly, where he crafted weekly scripts balancing nine memorable but very different characters all living on the same ship. And Whedon brings that expertise to the superheroes.


Whedon also makes the smart move of drip-feeding the arrival of the Avengers. We don't even see one of the principal four heroes until twenty minutes into the film, by which time we have already met the S.H.I.E.L.D team and the villain, a returning Tom Hiddleston as Thor's brother Loki. This stops the audience from being over-whelmed by capes and green things, whilst also giving us time to warm to the less-iconic but no less-interesting government agents.


Each character is handled with care, as you would expect from a lifetime fan-boy such as Whedon, and all have their fair share of heroic moments, story development and crowd-pleasing one-liners. The concern that Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark would steal the show with his trademark dry humour has proven unfounded. Remember, this is a Whedon script so everyone gets good material, even the more straight-laced characters like Thor and Captain America. 


It is also satisfying to finally see Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye get something to do after their cameos in previous films, the former tasked with protecting the world at whatever cost and the latter putting Legolas to shame in the kick-ass bow action department.  Newcomer Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner is also given ample screentime to establish himself as Edward Norton's replacement and succeeds in making the role his own, full of personality, subtlety and touches of The Other Guy hidden underneath. Although, if anyone is in danger of stealing the show, it might just be Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson with his nonchalant responses to gods and super-soldiers, plus his awkward admiration of Captain America. Agent Coulson is proof that some heroes 'suit-up' by putting on a tie.


Naturally, with Whedon's involvement, a razor-sharp script was a given. The laughs are in abundance, back stories are flesh-outed and great dialogue is in no short supply. With a lesser director or screenwriter, this might have turned into a rushed action film. But Whedon's best work is the interaction of mismatched characters and he brings that experience to Avengers. It would have been such a missed opportunity to sign these actors onto the same film and waste them in front of a greenscreen for two hours of CGI-bashing. Instead, the film balances the action with plenty of debate, clashing egos and sob-story telling which makes for more rewarding viewing.


But when the story does require action, Whedon (Hulk) smashes it. Serenity may not have done particularly well at the box office but now Whedon is back with a bigger budget and a set of super abilities to play with. The action is superb: creative, fun and with a sense of purpose to it. Above all else, the action is clear. Unlike Transformers 1 and 3, which similarly end with a city being trashed, the audience will be able to tell what is happening when the Avengers kick ass. There is sparing use of shaky-cam, frenetic editing and rock music. Instead, every action scene is given as much story and care as the dialogue scenes. If anything, Michael Bay should be taking notes from Whedon.


The climatic action scene also has a secret weapon in the form of the Hulk, who only makes one brief appearance before the final showdown. Whedon makes good use of the not-so-jolly green giant, including an unfortunate showdown for Loki and cinema's greatest sucker-punch, both of which were met with a round of applause by my audience on opening night. Hulk is such a lovable anti-hero: simple, feral and unstoppable but with the grunting petulance of a toddler. And there is a lot more personality to this Hulk due to Ruffalo playing him via motion-capture. Let's hope we don't have to wait until Avengers 2 before we see Ruffalo's Hulk again.


Critics may comment on certain plot-points. Firstly, everyone is chasing a cube of energy (another unfortunate Transformers parallel) but the Macguffin is a tradition of cinema history. And if it worked for Hitchcock, it can work for the Avengers. Secondly, the alien army are admittedly bland: humanoid, identical and silent. But who cares? The Avengers need some cannon-fodder to smash in order to keep our adrenaline pumping. And at least those giant metal eel things are pretty original.


The last point to debate is whether this is strictly for superhero fans or any cinema-goer. Without doubt, Avengers is best-suited for loyal fans who have seen the relevant preceding films: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and so on. After all, Whedon is a fan and so Avengers is full of references to the preceding films that attentive fans will appreciate. But you don't have to be a comic book geek to enjoy this film. And even newcomers will not struggle particularly. Whedon has effectively introduced each character (their abilities, their back stories) to ensure all cinema-goers will be inducted before the shields and hammers start flying.


To reiterate, Marvel Avengers Assemble is a perfect blockbuster. Whedon has arguably assembled (ahem) the greatest superhero film to date and certainly the most fun. But this is not just five-star, super-slick, laugh-out-loud, dream-come-true Friday night entertainment. Avengers is also something new. It is proof that Joss Whedon is a major player in Hollywood and will hopefully be given free rein to pick his projects from now on. And most importantly, it is proof that crossover comic book franchises can work on the big screen and should not just be restricted to the comics. Marvel's faith has paid off, both in the Avengers and in Whedon. 


So maybe it is Marvel who are the true heroes of this story.




Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods poses a problem for any film critic. When a ridiculously-enjoyable horror flick such as Cabin comes along, we naturally want to babble about its inventiveness, witty one-liners and genre-busting originality. But at the same time, we don't want to give the game away because Cabin's greatest strength is its rug-pulling twists and turns. It's a tricky one. 


But that's why critics invented the SPOILER ALERT. If you have faith in The Big Fairbanski gospel then stop reading now, watch the film raw and thank us later. However, if you need a little persuasion then read on. But don't say we didn't warn you...


SPOILER ALERT

Assuming by now that you have seen the poster, you would already have some idea that this is no ordinary hack-and-slash entry in the 'cabin in the woods' horror sub-genre. If the tongue-in-cheek title didn't give that away, then surely the Rubik's cube cabin and the tagline 'You think you know the story...' gave you this impression. And the poster is right. This is no ordinary 'cabin in the woods' film.

None of this is surprising when you look at the team putting this together. Drew Goddard is director and screenwriter, a man who previously wrote for Lost, Alias, Buffy and Cloverfield. Meanwhile, man-of-the-moment Joss Whedon is co-screenwriter and producer. Not only does this give you a script full of great characters, dark humour and fan-pleasing horror references but you also get the endless WTF moments that you have to come to expect from their earlier work.

As with Lost and Alias, a lot of the fun for the audience is spent trying to work out what is going on. Anyone who has seen the trailer, would have seen the eagle fly into the invisible forcefield and has no doubt figured out that there are puppet-masters behind the scenes. Is this some sort of Big Brother government experiment? Or a reality TV show like The Truman Show? Or are people paying to watch the violence like in Hostel? Then, just as you find yourself feeling confident in your theory - bam! - the film cuts to Japan. Goddard and Whedon keep you guessing until the end and, like Lost, this provides refreshing and addictive viewing.  But, unlike Lost, Cabin knows exactly where it is going. And rest assured, Cabin's destination is every bit as good as its journey.

In many ways, Cabin is a kindred spirit to that other five-star 2012 release, The Artist. After all, The Artist was a piece of silent cinema about silent cinema and equally Cabin is more than just a horror film: it is about horror films. Indeed, whilst all the horror motifs are present - the ominous redneck, the creepy basement, the horny fumble in the woods, the stupid decision-making ("Let's split up!") and the inevitable bloodshed - the film actually scrutinises the genre because each motif is purposefully engineered by the puppet-masters who knowingly manufacture the clich√©d set-up. As with the Scream films, this self-awareness makes for clever, meta but ultimately fun viewing.

Also like Scream, there is a delicate but well-crafted balance between the parody and the horror. This is crucial considering there are essentially two stories running alongside each other: the bloodshed in the cabin and the matter-of-fact office mentality of the puppet-masters. However, both are given due consideration. You could easily expect the dry humour of the puppet-masters (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, both superb) to steal the show. After all, we should relate to them the most because, like us, they are essentially the audience watching the events unfold. But when Goddard cuts back to the cabin, you are immediately invested back in the horror - gory, claustrophobic, creepy - and sympathise with the teenagers. It is an incredible balancing act and a testament to both director and script that the butchery in the cabin is not trivial to the audience, in the same way that it is trivial for the puppet-masters.

Best of all, Goddard and Whedon's fan-boy geekiness is ever-present and their influence makes for a showcase of deliriously-entertaining moments both cabin-side and behind-the-scenes. On the cabin front, we have plenty of original ideas: the blonde snogs a stuffed wolf's-head, a one-way mirror leads to some awkward humour, an extendable bong is used as a last defence and cinema has a new iconic murder weapon in the form of a swinging bear-trap. Meanwhile, there is lots of fun clich√©-inversion occurring with the puppet-masters who are simply spending another day at the office: pranking colleagues with speaker phone gags, collecting bets for the office sweepstake and drinking tequila at the office party. But all of this is done with a twist.

And then, when the two sides of the story collide... Well. Not even a SPOILER ALERT would give me enough jurisdiction to ruin that for you. 

Put it this way, the final twenty minutes might just be the most gloriously-rewarding climax to a film since The Matrix lobby scene. It is a horror fan's wet dream. It begins with a zooming-out shot so epic and full of visual treats that they could have ended the movie right there. But the film goes on and, boy, does it get messy. There is one particular oh-no-they-didn't moment which will stay with you long after you have left the multiplex. To say any more would ruin the surprise. But it is no coincidence that I mentioned the Matrix lobby scene.

The Cabin in the Woods is a five-star meta-horror experience. It is a love letter to the horror genre - part-parody, part-homage - written by a pair of fanboys with endless creativity and enough budget to craft one of the best cinema experiences of 2012. The marketing campaign has been understandably underwhelming, lest any major plot points are given away, so word-of-mouth is essential. And these are the words coming out of my mouth:

Go down to the woods today. You're sure of a big surprise.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Headhunters

Author Jo Nesbo is often dubbed the new Stieg Larsson and so naturally this adaptation of his novel Headhunters has been hailed as the new The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

To some extent, this comparison is justified. Like Dragon Tattoo, this is another superior 'Scandi Crime' thriller based on a work by a best-selling Scandinavian author. Expect murder, deception, gore, nudity and plenty of revelations along the way.

But Headhunters is a very different experience to Dragon Tattoo.

Most notably, Headhunters is no detective novel (although interestingly, Nesbo has written a series of detective novels narrating the adventures of Inspector Harry Hole. Presumably, the studios wanted to test Nesbo's appeal with his standalone Headhunters before launching the potential Hole franchise). Instead, this is a race-against-time thriller, sharing more in common with The Fugitive than the slow mystery-unravelling escapades of Dragon Tattoo.

Headhunters tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), corporate headhunter and part-time art thief. He has a beautiful wife (Synnove Macody Lund) but is afraid he will lose her to a new acquaintance, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Roger therefore refuses to assist Greve with an upcoming job opportunity. Unfortunately, Greve is a headhunter of a different kind and he takes Roger's rebuttal personally. And so begins a cross-country pursuit with the murderous Greve hunting out the increasingly-desperate Roger. 

Roger's desperate attempts to evade his pursuer highlight the other way in which this differs from Dragon Tattoo: comedy. Whereas, Steig Larsson's novels and their film adaptations are devoid of comic relief, this has never been the case with Jo Nesbo's novels which are filled with pitch-black humour. We therefore get numerous laugh-out-loud dark moments: hiding in a pile of faeces whilst breathing through a toilet roll, sinking a body with rocks only to then discover the man wasn't actually dead, escaping in a tractor with a dead dog skewered on the front, surviving a car crash off a cliff by being wedged in-between two identical fat police officers. The outrageous and increasingly-surreal set-pieces are very welcome in what could have been a formulaic on-the-run story.

The story also feels fresh due to the numerous twists and turns - this is a Nesbo adaptation after all - but also because of Mortem Tyldum's kinetic directing. Headhunters largely whips along at a fast pace (only 100 minutes), with quick-cutting and the time-saving benefits of a first-person narrative. Tyldum even fits in some gritty action scenes, including a barn brawl with a savage dog and a claustrophobic Bourne-style kitchen knife fight. All of this keeps the audience entertained amidst the complex plot.

The two leads of brilliant. Game of Throne's Coster-Waldau is perfectly cast as the charming but deadly Greve. Meanwhile, Hennie carries the film as Roger. Incredibly, Hennie manages to humanise a character who begins the movie stealing, cheating and acting smug. This is mostly done through his downfall (it's hard not to sympathise with a guy submerged in faeces) but also through some touching scenes with his wife towards the latter half of the film. There are not many films where the main character's story arc involves him overcoming small man's syndrome but Hennie handles this well.

Arguably, the wrapping-up of the plot is a little too convenient - a trait common in all Nesbo novels - and the tidy conclusion is reminiscent of an episode of Hustle. But this is necessary for the surprisingly feel-good ending and audiences deserve to leave with a smile after sitting through 100 minutes of suspense.

Headhunters is a hugely-enjoyable thriller, with plenty of original ideas and dark humour. It is a short, sharp slice of Norwegian entertainment that doesn't outstay its welcome. Best of all, it is good to see a Jo Nesbo novel finally arrive on the big screen. Based on Headhunters' success, expect adaptations of his Harry Hole detective novels to follow.

After all, Headhunters has given us a slice. Now we want the Hole.


★★★