Saturday, 28 April 2012

Bromance To The Extreme

It's the mother of all ensemble films, and a fangirl's wet dream: throw together four of the world's greatest heroes, put them in a confined space together and send them off on a mission to destroy a mighty supervillain capable of bringing about the end of the world as we know it. It had the potential to be either a massive disaster or a stunning hit, and I'm pleased to report that Avengers Assemble is most certainly the latter.

(Side note - do you realise how hard this was to write and keep free of spoilers? Incredibly, that's how hard. But I think I did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself. It was expecially difficult to keep one big thing a secret, but I did it!)

I won't go into huge detail over the plot, because it would take me bloody ages, but here's the basics for those who didn't already know. The ever egotistic Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the newly-unfrozen Captain America (Chris Evans) and the reclusive Dr Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) are recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. to retrieve the Tesseract (a shiny cube thing from Asgard - that's Thor's home planet to the uneducated - which contains unlimited amounts of energy... blah blah blah) which has been stolen by the nefarious Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as part of his plot to take over the world and rule as its king. Well, as you can imagine, there are ups and downs from the get-go, and a lot of butting heads over how to deal with Loki and the brainwashed Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). But hang on, isn't there one missing? Oh yes, as if things couldn't get more complicated, in flies the aesthetically-pleasing Thor (we forgive the hair, Chris Hemsworth) to take his brother back to Asgard, and the situation becomes more action-packed - and hilarious. Just FYI, it's a lot more complicated than it looks in the trailers, which suggests that a lot of the film is spent in the increasingly apocalyptic-looking Manhatten but actually is mostly spent on board a "helicarrier" (which is essentially a big flying aircraft carrier-slash-strategy base-slash-prison-slash-laboratory). Quite rightly, the fighting all comes to a head in an action-heavy finale which maybe feels slightly too long and drawn out but is pleasing all the same.

Ok, where to begin? A lot of people were concerned that this was going to be 'The Iron Man Show featuring other Avengers', but I'm very pleased to report that this really isn't the case; they all really get their moments to shine, even those who would be considered more supporting roles such as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (can we please see an origins film for these two?). The humour in this film defies belief, and again everyone gets their comic moment, even the lovely Marvel stalwart, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). As ever, Robert Downey Jr. is brilliantly charismatic and delivers all his lines with wonderful dryness that undercuts everything and everyone. Chris Evans may be slightly stiff, but plays the "man from a different time" very well, and since he's the one who gets exasperated with everyone easiest, we also relate to that when we want to bang everyone's heads together and shout "JUST PLAY NICELY, CHILDREN!" Chris Hemsworth is likewise very good at playing his part of someone who doesn't really fit in with the rest, and maintains his "I am a God" swagger whilst working out some sibling rivalry issues and trying to protect the Earth. Naww. The revelation is Mark Ruffalo, who finally manages to prove to the world that the Hulk can be a success! He brings such an endearing, sweet and sensitive vulnerability to Bruce Banner that audiences should like him very quickly and very easily, as well as also having great banter with the rest of the team. I would gladly go and see a Hulk film if he were to star in it again.

As for the "supporting" cast members (I use inverted commas because really they all play such a large role that they are more than just supporting), they too also bring great depth and layers to the film. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury gets to do more than turn up at the end of a film, swish his coat and ramble about "The Initiative" as he has done in all the prequel films, and audiences will either like him or dislike him a lot more after seeing the film - I was the latter, because really I saw him as just a smug prick in this, though some would say he proved himself finally by getting it together and not just standing there. Whatever your opinion, he's still no more interesting, really. Note to Marvel: don't make a Nick Fury origins film, please. As for Black Widow and Hawkeye, they are lovely, and it would be wonderful to see more of them in the future. Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, redeems herself after her mediocre performance in Iron Man 2 by integrating some actual emotion into her character, and she's actually really likeable. Her chemistry with Hawkeye is also really nice - I could sit there and watch them for hours (read: make a film!). And as for Hawkeye himself, it's nice that we finally get to see him in action, since all he had before was an uncredited cameo in Thor. He is so unbelievably cool with a bow-and-arrow, even better than Katniss. There's one particular shot, and you'll know when you see it, that I felt like applauding. I wanted to cry with envy at how cool he was. But the one who actually made me cry and stole every seen he was in was Agent Phil Coulson. If you've seen the other films you know how amazing he is anyway, but here he really shines. Whether it's being a total fanboy over Captain America (so adorable) or standing up to Loki, he gives a really wonderful performance that makes him one of the best characters in this whole franchise.

And last but certainly not least, is the one, the only, the Asgardian reject, Loki! My first question is: why would anyone oppose a world ruled by Loki? I'm definitely on his side in this one, I would welcome this, but I may be biased because I absolutely adore him. He's developed further in his emotional and injust situation of being the illigitimate brother, though maybe trying to take the world by force wasn't necessarily such a good idea - I'm sure everyone would have come round if he explained his plight nicely. Yes, he apparently hasn't cut his hair since the Thor and he looks ill most of the time, but his mischievious ways are still so charming, and I still held out a tiny bit of hope that he would win in the end. Funnily enough, when his plan comes to fruition and the Chitauri (some form of aliens to you and I) come to Earth through the magic portal (don't ask), it's actually then that he becomes most... dull, for lack of a better word - he's obviously not dull, because it's Loki, but his spark has kind of gone by the time his plan is in motion. Loki is much better at ranting manically and riling up every character he comes across rather than putting any plan into action.

Really what is great about this film is the interaction between the four heroes. There's a lot of bickering which often results in hilarious one-liners and one hero making a jab at another, escalating into fights some of the time (the Thor and Iron Man one is both great action and comic genuis at the same time). And really, Total Film were right when they said that it isn't the best superhero film ever (duh, Christopher Nolan's Batman films, anyone?) but may well be the funniest, and not just in dialogue but also in action - see: Loki and the Hulk... actually a lot of Hulk moments. It had me in stitches an insane amount. But also the bromance between the characters when they finally come together as a team is really something special. Bruce and Tony have a very touching moment where the two genius minds come together and form an endearing bond - and watch them at the end, it's almost enough to make you go "awwwww" (I actually did, silently). Even the relationship between Black Widow and the Hulk is nice. It's so heartwarming to see them working together when they finally pull it off.

There are only two small things wrong with the film: I don't particularly care for Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill, who doesn't do anything really except strut around in a catsuit and be Nick Fury's lackie. And secondly, Loki's alien army are threatening, I suppose, as a whole, but are kind of forgettable and seem to be taken out very easily. It's only the giant... flying... creature... things that you've all seen in the trailer, that seem like they could actually cause quite a bit of damage.

The film redeems itself from these small niggles by doing something that most films can't, which is to make the clich├ęd moments fun and to twist them into the unconventional. There's a particular sign on the side of a particular building at the end, which instead of being cheesy is just cool, and moments like Loki bringing forth a deep, dark moment in Black Widow's past is turned on its head to become something entirely different than angsty. Even the jokes that come after Bruce being discovered naked in a barn after a round as "the other guy", as he likes to call him, are funny rather than done-to-the-death.

It could have gone so wrong to have four big characters like this all in one film, but it did so well to pull off being an actual ensemble cast, with each character getting their deserved amount of screen time and nobody (read: Tony Stark) hogging the limelight. And nobody is made to feel unimportant or unnecessary; they all have a role to play and writer/director Joss Whedon hits the nail dead on the head in getting it so right. All of the different backstories are hinted at and the different plots fit together seamlessly where it could have been disastrous otherwise. It's also not just a showcase for the heroes' talents, as we also get to see their weaknesses and vulnerabilities - there's a revelatory moment when Tony is talking to Bruce that makes us see him in a different light than we might have in his other two outings, and we also get to see Steve "Captain America" Rogers trying to adjust to a new life he is so unfamiliar with, among other moments. It's clever, and though it's been compared with the Transformers films for the levels of destruction it causes, it isn't daft and bland like that particular franchise - this actually has brains and uses them. There's a lot more talking that one would expect, but that's really a good thing, as we get to know each and every character better than we did before. This feels like just the beginning.

Verdict: A film which is visually stunning, intelligent, endearing, hilarious and, at times, heartbreaking. It more than lived up to my expectations. You really have to see the other films before this to properly appreciate it, but for fans, it doesn't get much better. On behalf of fans everywhere I can only say one thing: Thank you, Joss Whedon. Please come again.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Get Your Rods Out

Last week I attended an advance screening of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an adaptation of the 2007 satirical book of the same name.

I haven't read the book - hell, before I saw the film I didn't even know it was a book - but apparently if you have read it the film doesn't really live up to it (which of course is true for 98.9% of book-to-film adaptations). However, if like me you haven't read the book then the film really is a treat; this review will  be based solely on the film, since, duh, like I just said, I have nothing else to base it on, so don't get all hissy with me if you have indeed read the book and disagree with everything I say: just disregard it, I'm used to that.

Government fishing expert Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is approached by consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt - I had to look up how to spell her character's name, it was tricky) on behalf of a wealthy sheikh who wants to introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen (see, the film does what it says on the tin). At first dismissing it as impossible, Fred is forced into working on the project by the government, and specifically, Patricia Maxwell, the Prime Minister's Press Secretary (a wonderful Kristen Scott Thomas) who is looking for a good news story to boost Anglo-Arab relations and to counteract the ongoings of the action in Afghanistan, conveniently where Harriet's soldier boyfriend has just been reported as missing.

I didn't really have any expectations going into it, and it turned out I was really very pleasantly surprised by it. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt actually make a really lovely couple, and coming out of it I'm slightly sad that they aren't together in real life. The film is a lot more complex than it looks in the trailer, but no less enjoyable, which is good, so I definitely wasn't disappointed in it.

Kristen Scott Thomas is without a shadow of a doubt the best part of the film, with the most hilarious lines - whether she's shouting at her son for treating her "like one of his hoes", flirting with the sheikh's security, or typing hilarious putdowns to the PM, she gets it pitch-perfect.. When the film starts to take a dip around the half-way point, she is the one to pick it back up again. Considering the last review I gave of her acting was less than favourable, I can safely say she is forgiven for her wrongdoings and I am happily reminded of what a fabulous comic actress she is - I hope to see more of this soon; it's made me want to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral again just to see her in action.

Ewan McGregor, too, was a wonderful surprise, and I finally see why people like him as an actor. I've never been impressed with him really before this, and I don't think I'll ever fully forgive him for Moulin Rouge, but he won me over very quickly in this. His cynical view of the plan for the first chunk of the film is so funny, and one of the highlights of the film is him drawing little (very good) pictures whilst explaining how badly he thinks the plan will fail (it's in the trailer, but somehow seeing it in the context of the rest of the film makes it even funnier). You end up rooting for him when he finally escapes his marriage and comes out of his shell, and his chemistry with Blunt is excellent; they bounce off each other really well.

Blunt is also very good, and like Scott Thomas, I'm reminded of her brilliance in this, even if she doesn't fully shine like she does in, say, The Devil Wears Prada. Aside from the annoying segment of the film where she inexplicably has a complete breakdown (more on that below), she is really lovely, and she appears to be the obvious choice for Fred over his bitch of a wife, even if they don't actually have much in common other than their attachment to the project. She slips between comedy and tragedy very well for the most part, and I think that has to be applauded. Altogether, though they are the two main roles, McGregor and Blunt give very subtle performances that will entertain more mature audiences, but that's what they're going for (I think. It's quite hard to tell who this is aimed at, actually. I'd say older audiences, definitely).

There are some flaws with the film. The treatment of Fred's marriage breakdown (which you will hope for, because his wife is a mega-bitch who doesn't appreciate him at all) and Harriet's boyfriend's disappearance are never really treated with the depth and seriousness they require to be entirely believable. Even though Fred's separation from his wife is inevitable, it feels very muted, and he seems to get over it entirely too quickly. And yes, Emily Blunt spends ten minutes of the film crying and moping around her designer flat, but as soon as she gets on a plane to Yemen she seems to have forgotten all about her missing boyfriend. You question why she even has such an extreme reaction, considering they were only going out for a month; she acts like a grieving widow when his parents didn't even know she existed.

I also think the sub-plot of the local militants' sabotage plan of the project was kind of unnecessary; there were enough other obstacles to overcome without the added threat of a group of men trying to destroy their work. Um, I suppose I should say that this is a big SPOILER, but you feel let down and unfulfilled at the end as all of their work kind of goes up in smoke and they have to start all over again, even if it is kind of supposed to be uplifting and hopeful.

I didn't really know what sort of film it was trying to be, as it has defining elements of comedy, drama, and romance whilst dealing with issues like the crisis in the Middle East and the breakdown of marriages, but somehow it mostlyworks. I think if they had cut the whole sabotage bit out, they could have dedicated more time to dealing with the issues I think got overlooked somewhat - it's like there was a bit too much going on to fully get stuck in ro one particular bit.

Saying that, it is a lovely, feel-good film that brightened my week, and I'd still recommend it. It hasn't made me desperate to read the book, and I don't have hugely strong urges to go and see it again straight away, but it still was lovely to watch and I'm very glad I did see it, even if to only have discovered a new-found love for Ewan McGregor.

Verdict: a genuinely very sweet film that, although is predictable, is a wonderful piece of light entertainment that will cheer you up on a cloudy day. And make you want a holiday. I'm not feeling generous today, so I'll stick with the three stars, but there were definitely five-star moments in there; it just never packs the punch I think it needed to truly make it brilliant.