The Avengers (A)
U.S.: Joss Whedon, 2012, Walt Disney Video
It's perfectly obvious that the people who made The Avengers -- especially Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and directed -- want to give us the ultimate comic-book super-hero epic movie.
This all-star mega-picture brings together seven of Stan Lee's Marvel comic book superstars in their big-movie super-reincarnations: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (director of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Chris Evans' Captain America, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, The Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo), and the group's star of stars and champion wisecracker, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (played to the hilt by Robert Downey Jr.).
As they all gather together in one big super-nosh, trading quips and flexing muscles and tossing verbal barbs and flaunting super-powers, we get to know them better, and so do they. These fantastic seven have impressive digs too; they're mostly sequestered in a huge, bizarre, sometimes-invisible flying, floating aircraft heli-carrier, preparing to face the challenge of the skinny, villainous Loki of Asgard (Tom Hiddleston), a meanie with a sinister smile who's trying to steal the precious tesseract, open up a space portal, engage a space army, and conquer Earth, or at least midtown Manhattan.
We can only feel glad (and lucky) that the Avengers are on our side, and not Loki's. We can thank our superstars that Joss Whedon is with us, that Stan Lee is our (and their) Generalissmo, and that they called the shots (past and present) along with co-writer Zak Penn and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Alan Silvestri and production designer James Chinlund and producer Kevin Feige and all the technical people. Where would we be if they'd all signed up with the Bad Guys?
The plot of The Avengers is standard. Loki zips in from Asgard, where he spent the last Thor movie bedeviling Thor -- swipes the tesseract, hangs around the heli-carrier for a while, and then unleashes his invasion, highlighted by a a flying, undulating, Transformerish mechanical beastie that would give even the most jaded Manhatttanites pause.
But fierce Loki has a fiercer antagonist in Fury -- who has been monitoring other Marvel movies, like Iron Man and Thor and Captain America, for the last several years, dropping trailer-teasers. Aware of Loki's evil designs, Fury assembles the Dream Team, and lets them dance around and strut their stuff and trade put-downs for a while -- before they have to go up against Loki, who makes it clear (in Germany, no less) that Fascism is his thing, and that he wants to revive the spirit of Adolf Hitler and keep the world free from freedom.
There's a wry and decidedly irreverent edge to much of The Avengers. That's why Downey's Tony Stark is around, with his bemused not-quite-grin, and his late-night TV host wiliness and speed, and why he has so many good zinger lines. Downey is the voice of the audience's more subversive, more adult side and he's like the smart-asses in Scream, continually kidding the very conventions that entrap him.
That's also probably why the first part of the movie goes easier on the action than you'd expect, and why it has the six crime busters in their various alter-egos or not-so-secret identities, teasing and ragging on and insulting each other. These clever dialogue scenes are actually more important to the movie's final impact (and better written and directed) than the climactic showpiece half-hour battle scene.
Snappy dialogue, of course, was also a big part of Stan Lee's game plan on the classic Marvel comics of the '60s and '70s, and a very big part of their appeal. Lee's original characters were knowing and hip, and the big fights that climaxed most of the stories almost always had the superheroes and supervillains trading snappy quips and impertinent wisecracks, while they bashed and thrashed and totaled each other. Those superheroes also had psychological problems, depth and emotional traumas as well. (The classic cases were the Hulk and Spider-Man.)
Among the big Hollywood stars right now, Robert Downey seems to me as potentially great a movie actor as any other player we have right now -- and part of the reason is that, like most of the best, he makes complex things look easy, He also isn't afraid to dig deep down and he doesn't leave his fellow actors stranded: He interacts as well as he acts.
Here, it's not that Downey is pushed forward to the detriment of his fellow actors. He and Mark Ruffalo, as the new Bruce Banner (an inspired choice), are the principle scene-stealers in The Avengers. But they leave plenty for their castmates too, and so does Whedon. As writer-director, Whedon doesn't seem to play favorites at all; he gives showcase scenes to every one of his top stars, and to some of the supporting players too, like Clark Gregg as the moony federal agent Coulson and one time Bergman actor Stellan Skarsgrd as good-guy-turned-bad Selvig. The great Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowksi (Moonlighting, Walkover) also shows up briefly as one of the Russians interrogating Black Widow.
He makes it a technician's show too. Tellingly, the cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, isn't an action specialist, but instead usually shoots psychological art films or smart entertainments (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Atonement, Nowhere Boy, The Hours, High Fidelity). McGarvey's next assignment is an adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for director Joe Wright. Here, in concert with the effects people, McGarvey and designer Chinlund create images that are cutting and fresh, but never too overpowering, even though they're often as jampacked and paranoiacally detailed as the usual sci-fi actioner.
The Avengers has a lot to offer. Whedon's movie amuses you and moves you and excites you, and at times, it just impresses the living hell out of you. (Extras: commentary by Joss Whedon; alternate opening and ending; featurettes; extended scenes; second screen; gag reel; Soundgarden music video.)
Dark Shadows (B)
U.S.: Tim Burton, 2012, Warner Home Video
The original Dark Shadows was a hell of a TV soap, a classic of '60s-'70s pop/trash culture. When you watch it today, you can almost hear a ghostly backdrop chorus of Nixon and McGovern speeches, Walter Cronkite reporting the Vietnam War news, and hit after hit by the Rolling Stones. But, in the new Johnny Depp version, Depp and director Tim Burton treat Shadows more reverently than they should, almost like a classic, period.
They mount it gorgeously, load it up with top-of-the-line talent, headed by Depp as the series' classy camp vampire Barnabas Collins. And they fill the dark spaces around Barnabas with stunning star actresses and creepy, villainous supporting actors, all backed by a '70s soundtrack laced with non-Stones hits and pop-camp like The Carpenters' "Top of the World" and Barry White and The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." (Karen Carpenteer's creamy, ultra-mellow dulcimer of a voice, Barry White's virile purr and the crashing waves of "Nights in White Satin" become terrifying by association.)
The filmmakers also take a lead character, Barnabas C., who was an epicene icon, and they let Depp (who interprets many roles with a gay slant) make Barnabas so unabashedly straight (I thought) with his lady loves -- Eva Green in Lara Parker's old role of witch/bitch Angelique Bouchard and Bella Heathcote as both eternal 18th-century ladylove Josette Duprez and '70s governess Victoria Winters -- that they either die or kill for love of him.
There's also no shortage of divas and ingenues at Collins Manor: Michelle Pfeiffer, in a striking return, plays noir goddess Joan Bennett's old role of matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, that unquiet Brit Helena Bonham Carter takes Grayson Hall's part of untraditional psychotherapist Dr. Julia Hoffman, and Chloe Grace Moretz does Elizabth's languid smarty-pants teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard.
The males in Shadows, include Jonny Lee Miller, unlikably playing the the spineless Roger Collins, Elizabeth's brother and father of the eerily self-possessed tyke David (Gully McGrath), plus Jackie Earle Haley as the spooky-looking hired hand Willie Loomis, who gives a shot of needed anti-glamour to one of the more glamorous-looking vampire movies ever. And last but not least, there's Alice Cooper, who plays ghoulish front man at the Collins's not-quite-Ambersons ball.
The story, cannily but not too compellingly supplied by screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Zombies and Pride and Prejudice), is set in 1972, the year Nixon was resoundingly elected and about the time of the original TV show (which ran from 1966 to 1971). The show begins with a high-melodramatic prelude in which the Collins family travels to the New World, starts up the city of Collinsport and the lucrative Collins fishery, and the dashing but peculiar Barnabas wins the hearts of both angelic Josette and devilish Angelique.
It all ends (in the beginning) in the deep, dark, dreadful Gothic night, with Barnabas and Josette perched at the top of a high Gothic cliff, above crashing Gothic waves -- he falls, she falls, he can't save her -- and evil Angelique gets him vampirized and buried in a chained box. Two hundred years later, Barnabas is dug up and awakened by a group of hapless workmen who are immediately bitten and killed. "I'm thirsty," the well-mannered Barnabas explains, and returns to Collins manor (it's gone to seed and so has the fishery), where he's greeted by Loomis and Elizabeth. The movie plunges into the horror-as-soap-opera shtick we expect, the relentless demonic seductions of Angelique, and eventually more mad love and cliffs.
The movie is dry and droll and very, very pretty, but not particularly funny, surprising or inventive, except in the ways it collides Barnabas with the '70s. (He thinks TV is a sorcerer's box filled with little sorceress singers, and he also thinks Alice Cooper is the ugliest woman he's ever seen).
The things that are good about Dark Shadows are things that we usually expect to go right in a Tim Burton movie: all those elegantly horrific, witty, lush and magnificently playful visuals, which summon up the exaggerated wonders of movies when we're young.
And there's the enticingly movie star-ish cast. The unsmiling Depp crosses a bit of Jonathan Frid (the first immortal Barnabas, recently deceased), with Vincent Price's tartness and Tyrone Power's sweetness of spirit, while Pfeiffer holds the screen grande-dame-ishly, and, as always, niftily blonde-ishly. Christopher Lee, Price's sort of rival is here in the flesh, in a cameo. Carter chews up the film ferociously, and Moretz is archly teenagery. The film's great prize though, is Eva Green, who makes Angelique such a luscious strumpet and monster that she magnetizes you.
The movie entertains us, in at least a somewhat adult way, even if it mostly tries to evoke a passion of long ago, the '70s, Tim Burton's youth. That's not the top of the world, and it's not even close, but it's something. Thirsty? (Extras: featurettes.)