Stormy with a chance of horror

The Knick on Cinemax

The Knick on Cinemax

If you’re in Jakarta and you’re looking for something to watch this weekend, and have no idea which movie to choose from, I might be able to help you with that.

First week back to work in the post-Eid holiday, I went to three media screenings. Tuesday was Into The Storm. Wednesday I had Cinemax’s The Knick. Thursday was all about TMNT. (I also finally went ahead and saw Step Up: All In.) Today, Friday, my friends and I went to see Babadook.

Of all these, the first one I would recommend to you would actually be The Knick (see above picture). It’s a TV series, actually, but it was aired in a small cinema so we got to see it in a large screen (which is divine). It’s airing in Indonesia this Saturday, at 9 PM, on Cinemax within 24 hours after its US debut. Despite coming with warnings for triggering issues such as racism and the maximum level of gore, the pilot has great music, is rich in period details and features a wonderful performance by the cast led by Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It is perfect for the stay-at-home-can’t-be-bothered-to-join-the-masses-in-malls type. Television Renaissance, I tell you…

The second best thing I saw at a cinema this week that I would recommend to people would be Into The Storm.

into-the-storm-on-the-set
Everything I said in this reaction post is reason enough to pick this over the rest of this weekend’s releases. Some people are comparing it with Twister (and say that it doesn’t match that old classic – probably because there weren’t enough flying cows in this Steven Quale film) but, well. Twister is not playing in cinemas right now, is it? Disaster films can also be triggering and I imagine people who live in areas in the US that are at risk from such an occurrence might not feel that this is the film for them but the movie itself is relatable, evenly paced and easy to digest.

Here’s also where I confess to something: I almost interviewed Richard Armitage for my article but didn’t.

Into The Storm Article in TFI #57
I ended up getting a generic interview file and worked that out for my piece instead. But I’m still holding out hope that I would get to interview him in person one day. Call me a hopeless optimist but I’ve already interviewed Sarah Wayne Callies (Mr. Armitage’s co-star in Storm)  and Andrew Lincoln (his co-star in Strike Back and her co-star in The Walking Dead), so one day I will. ONE DAY.

On the meantime, I’ll just watch him in the screens.

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Into The Storm: A Reaction

into-the-storm-stills-004

Consider these my notes for my upcoming review of Into The Storm.

+ This summer season, Warner Bros. has two summer movies that defied my expectations. First they released Edge Of Tomorrow, and now they are releasing Into The Storm. Both of these movies have the advantage of not being connected into any franchise currently running and they are both standalone stories that are not sequel or prequel to anything. They also share another common quality: being absolutely entertaining to me as a moviegoer.

+ I could nitpick and say that Into The Storm has minimal character development and it is riddled with disaster movie cliché (there has to be at least one authority figure who challenges the hero’s attempt to save all of their lives, right?) It also has pacing problems in which the non-tornado moments felt really rushed and end up being inconsequential. But I choose not to nitpick, for reasons I will elaborate below…

+ Because who can nitpick when you have such awesomely disastrous tornado scenes? Disastrous is not even the word. Catastrophic is more like it. For a movie that doesn’t really have a villain, director Steven Quale has successfully made a supervillain out of those tornadoes. Hell hath no fury like Mother Nature scorned. This movie is scary enough to make me paranoid and want to build a bunker and become a survivalist.

+ There’s a heightened sense of danger here, especially because the heroes are not depicted entirely as heroes. Gary and his sons weren’t anything special. Their relationship, especially in the way they annoy each other, was completely relatable. Pete and Allison’s teams ticked another box in the cliché list but I’ve had co-workers who behave and interact with me that way, so – again – this was believable. Whether they were trying to run away or run into the storm, I found them not particularly heroic in the way protagonists are, so they all seemed all the more vulnerable against the imminent disaster.

+ Coming back to Gary and his sons’ interaction, there was this odd moment in the movie where I felt like they were imitating my own life. Gary’s response to his sons in the beginning? Totally my own father’s response to me. That was weird. And also, that was how I knew they pulled it off in being a family.

+ Funnily enough, I didn’t think he could do it. Sue me but I didn’t think Richard Armitage could pull of being an everyman… but he did! I always thought he was built for tall, dark, broody and mysterious characters, but here he was, being so normal and all, almost without standing out. Even Sarah Wayne Callies stood more as the meteorologist than Gary the teacher. It was amazing.

+ Being a TV buff these days, Into The Storm was full of recognizable faces. In fact, it felt at times like the merging of my TV fandoms… Sarah Wayne Callies represented The Walking Dead, Matt Walsh Veep, Jeremy Sumpter Friday Night Lights… there was even that annoying drug addict of a Ballard student from Crisis (Brandon Ruiter; playing yet another jackass in this movie)!

+ The low profile cast helped the story in my opinion. The summer movie blockbusters are always a parade of A-list stars; sometimes there are so much star power in one single movie that you get distracted from the story by their celebrity status. Into The Storm may have been made up of relatively unknown actors in the cast, but they are exactly what the story needed to tell it on screen. It truly is amusing and uplifting how a small budget flick like Into The Storm can pack more finesse and quality in terms of acting compared to the likes of Transformers: Age Of Extinction.

+ Have I ever mentioned how much I hate found footage films? It was okay the first or second time around, but after so many movies used this format, I’ve decided that it is just not for me. I didn’t even like how it was used in Earth To Echo (another summer indie project that I quite admire), but I felt that the format worked for Into The Storm. My fears of the film being visually obnoxious were unfounded because somehow Brian Pearson – the DoP – made the found footage aspect of it work for the story. Plus, THE TORNADOES. Still awesome.

+ I’d mention some of my favorite tornado destruction scenes but that would count as spoilers and I don’t want that.

+ Brian Tyler scored the film. Just thought you ought to know that.

+ In my book, Into The Storm has become an instant disaster movie classic. I’m not into this genre, so maybe I’m not the best person to decide what’s a classic or not, but I can safely say I prefer this film to anything Roland Emmerich has made. The direction lacks the gloss and panache of a big budget studio production but it’s still solid and assured in presentation. It’s still popcorn flick for the summer season, but it also has enough heart and humanity in the story, aside of the awesome spectacles (GIANT TORNADO!), to avoid being a brainless entertainment.

To close this reaction post: this movie received an applause from the guests at my media screening (an official screening held by the studio for members of the press and other guests). That puts it on par with another summer movie WB has released this summer, Godzilla.

Into The Storm is released in Indonesia Wednesday, 6 August 2014.

End Of Watch: Film Review

For a delightfully different kind of cop movie, pick End Of Watch.

Here, there’s no big gunfight set piece where the members of the force fight street gangs. There’s no good cop versus bad cop either. There’s not even really a big case that involves a huge twisted plot to begin with. There’s no intentional wisecracking and there are no witty one-liners to get you into the characters. There’s

What exists is a movie about two cops who are just doing their jobs. Like you doing your job and me doing mine. The difference is, their job constitutes of dealing with some very nasty bastards and being in some very hairy situations. This movie brings us near their jobs, documentary-style (complete with shaky, dizzying handheld camera work that gave me motion sickness – so you know the lengths they went to make this look as real as possible), so you get pulled really deeply into its intensity.

Far be it from me to judge its authenticity, but the story feels very honest. Even at its funniest (such as when a blowjob is being discussed) or gruesome (like when knife was sticking out of a guy’s eye), it never seemed gimmicky. When they talk down on a rookie cop, it’s not comic relief – it’s genuine abuse. When they rescue kids from danger, it’s not a heroic moment – it’s real responsibility.

Props must be given to Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña for being able to delivering that honesty to us. Gyllenhaal tones down his charm and ends up giving one of the best performances in his career (I’m not a fan of his so consider that a high praise from me), but my favorite was Michael Peña. He was amusing, charming, engaging and earnest in this role – not just a perfect balancing act for the more serious cop Gyllenhaal played, but also the real star of the show. Definitely not bad for two actors who reportedly did not really click on the first day of shooting.

Supporting roles from the likes of Anna Kendrick and America Ferrera were also interesting to see but instead of being a crowded star-studded movie, this remained a low-key arthouse-esque cop flick. And it’s all the better for it. (Lay off the shaking camera movement, though.) End Of Watch is one movie you’d be glad you’d sit through for almost 2 hours.

Frankenweenie (2012): Film Review

Tim Burton is ALIVE!

After the disappointing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that he produced and the underwhelming Dark Shadows, you would wonder whether Tim Burton would end this year with a third strike and send him out of the game for a good long while. But, as they say, third’s time a charm and one of my favorite filmmakers in the world has proven it. His last feature of 2012, Frankenweenie, is the winning bat.

When young Victor Frankenstein lost his dog Sparky to a car accident, he was desolate. But inspired by a lesson in science class and his own father’s words (“If we could bring him back alive, we would”), Victor came up with a way to resurrect Sparky. So he did. Then someone found out his secret and all hell – literally – broke loose. In the ensuing chaos, a love letter was born… to the people, the characters and the films that made Tim Burton the filmmaker that he is today.

It’s clearly a very personal movie. Burton made Frankenweenie as a short film for Disney back when he was a 25-year-old animator working for the company. But the project was shelved and he got depressed. So it’s sweetly ironic that he got to resurrect this project for the same studio that cancelled it. As such, it comes as no surprise that there’s a myriad of references to Burton’s old movies and the classic ones he used to watch as a child. There was everything from Edward Scissorhands to Batman, and The Mummy to Gremlins, and even Godzilla, complete with a Japanese character (a boy named Toshiaki). But instead of pastiche, the ‘borrowed’ ideas did not only create much of the film’s humor but also brought to it a thrilling and captivating sense of adventure.

While the idea is probably not refreshing (Cabin In The Woods is also a movie that was a love/hate letter to horror movies), the feeling of freshness is prevalent throughout. The reason for that is the wide-eyed innocence of the narrators, Victor and Sparky. As we follow the story from the boy and his dog’s points of view, we are taken back into our childhood. Whether you were lucky enough to own a pet when you were young or not, that special friendship with someone or something you had when you were little was evoked so powerfully in this relationship that Victor had with Sparky.

But none of this would probably work if the film hadn’t been in black and white. I couldn’t not imagine the film being as wonderful if it had been in color. It could be that we associate black and white photographs to the past and so the vision of story became more powerful that way. Or it could be that the black and white softened the morbidity of the story. Or maybe it was Burton’s way to subtly direct us to focus on the story so that we wouldn’t get distracted by the visuals. Whatever it was, this technique worked. And it worked perfectly.

Anyone tired of seeing modern-day animated movies, with all the smooth digital rendering and life-like images, would also find the animation in this movie highly attractive. As Burton said, stop motion seemed like a dead art in filmmaking. Certainly, the most successful animated movies in recent years hadn’t been done in stop motion. But Frankenweenie will give us a new appreciation for it. Even if it doesn’t help to sell tickets of the stop motion animated movies, it will at least show people that the art is, like Sparky, pretty much alive.

I cannot give this movie enough praise. It’s simply an experience to have on your own. It may have a logic-defying plot but is thoroughly heartfelt, evocative, adventurous, exhilarating, fantastical and magical: very entertaining for kids – a way to experience monsters without having to have nightmares later – but profound enough for adults to enjoy. And who knows, maybe it’ll inspire parents to understand their kids better? Because my favorite line from the movie is one that I would hold dear for the rest of my life and probably one day convey to my child.

    Victor’s dad to Victor: “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.”*

And that is, really, the message that Burton seemed to be trying to tell us: sometimes being an adult is boring, so trust your inner child and just have fun. I could be wrong, of course, but heck, that’s a pretty damn good line anyway.

Frankenweenie is easily one of my favorite movies of 2012, along with – among others – The Artist, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Raid. I would recommend it to everyone. And yes, I will recommend this in 3D.

* Note: This quote is an approximation. I will correct it later with the real one from the movie.

Dredd 3D (2012): Film Review

After pining for it for about a week, I got to see Dredd, the Pete Travis-directed and Alex Garland-penned movie based on the character from the comic book 2000 AD. If you’re like me, who’s a fan of Karl Urban and geeky enough to follow Comic-Con news, then you know the hype has been around for some time… and you’d have heard of the enthusiastic response it got from this year’s SDCC. So with that kind of prelude for the movie prior to its release, naturally I had high expectations.

And it did not disappoint.

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The Expendables 2

WHEN THE FIRST THE EXPENDABLES came out, I had no idea why a lot of people liked it so much. Sure it was an ’80s action movie buff’s wet dream to see Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis together in the same film… but the movie it self was chock full of ridiculousness. The action was unreal, over the top and frankly camp. Then Mickey Rourke showed up and got emotional in front of everyone, while Jason Statham tried to get his bimbo back. Or something like that. That movie took itself so seriously that the macho overdose felt suffocating instead of attractive and I wanted to shoot Stallone in the face for making something like that.

The Expendables 2, though. It was just as cheesy, just as ridiculous and just as nonsensical as the first one… but it now has – and I’m borrowing this term from somewhere else – a self-deprecating voice in its presentation that it becomes a lot more enjoyable to watch. Expendables 2 is a triumph in camp blood splatters, mindless gun duels and explosions as well as hilarious banters.

Also, it manages to shamelessly squeeze in a very effective Chuck Norris joke with a deadpan expression. And it works.

There is nothing to say of the story and the plot – it’s thin, mostly cliche, and not very important compared to the action. Meanwhile, the action is slightly more choreographed – therefore becomes more whimsical – than the first but makes for entertaining results and gives acceleration to the pace of the movie. While this is a huge improvement from the first movie, it was still not enough to give an edge of Stallone’s second venture on male pattern badness.

Luckily, there are plenty of small moments to make us laugh. Chuck Norris aside, the expansion of the cast to include a female team member (Maggie played by Nan Yu) is a welcome sight. No longer does Stallone take up the entire scene alone and each star gets a moment or two. Another plus is Bruce and Arnie’s bigger involvements – they now have more to do than just say a few silly lines in a church. They had one exchange in the climax of the movie that comprised the best line in this entire movie, showing once and for all that poking fun at oneself and each other is the way this movie is ever going to be tolerable.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s baddie fits the tone of the movie very well. Giving a performance as mercurial as his reputation, Van Damme is definitely still watchable now as he was in the past. Granted, he’s kind of dramatic… but it’s Van Damme. As long as he kicks some ass around, no one is going to complain.

It’s a pity that this movie will only considered as a joke by serious critics… but who can blame them? Arthouse cinema, this is not. But when it comes to bringing to the table something fun at the cinema to close the summer movie season with, The Expendables 2 is doing everything right and nothing wrong.

Yippeekiyay, mofos.

THE VERDICT
An improvement from the first with a tighter plot and bigger action, Sly’s latest reunion with Arnie and Bruce will please the fanboys. Any critics who want to complain should consider running away in a different direction than Chuck Norris’ cobra or else.

Bourne Legacy: Film Review

THE BOURNE LEGACY IS SITUATED between a rock and a hard place. How could it not? It is clearly a film that is meant to be a reboot of the Bourne franchise that was in a comatose state for the longest time since trilogy director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon left. But it is also a reboot that HAS TO be a sequel because there is a need to justify the use of the name Bourne in its title.

If my opening paragraph makes little sense to you, either grammatically or stylistically, don’t worry. Watching the first 30 minutes of The Bourne Legacy will give you the same feeling. I am in excellent company because Tony Gilroy – previously writer of the trilogy, currently director and writer of the reboot – is apparently capable of making such hiccups.

That’s why at this point of the review, I will have to assert this statement: Hollywood, just stick to the books next time. It’s not like The Bourne books are made of papyrus and lost for all eternity for your writers to adapt, you know?

Moving on.

Disjointed is the word I would use to describe The Bourne Legacy. The movie opens with wilderness scenes that intercut with scenes where people react to the events in Bourne Supremacy. But while the idea is acceptable, the execution is not. The editing makes for highly awkward pacing and the camera work makes for highly awkward angels. Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross battles the cold weather, wolves and Oscar Isaac’s stoicism while Edward Norton as the mysterious Rick (or was it Eric?) Byer cryptically goes around, seemingly in circles, dealing with a Bourne induced mess. None of this is coherent enough to remind longtime fans of the story of the previous Bourne film (I should know; I watched the movie with one such fan) or introduce new fans to the greatness of a Bourne film. And it’s long – so incredibly long – that it takes a lot of patience to wade through the muddled waters of this Legacy reboot.

But when Rachel Weisz’s Marta Shearing goes through her own version of a nightmarish office shooting, Gilroy finally hits his stride. There’s less chatter and more movements; he starts to show rather than tell. Admittedly, Gilroy’s narration still falters, such as when he portrays Byer as a prissy douche instead of the cold-hearted bureaucrat he could be, but the engaging scenes and action set pieces he comes up with should keep everyone occupied so that the convoluted plot that can be put aside for a while.

The climax of the story takes place in Manila, the Philippines, where Shearing and Cross does Something Very Important in a lab while Byer and his cronies remain Stateside and monitor the situation through the advanced technology that makes the USA one of the most suspicious countries in the world. The 120 minutes-plus movie culminates in a chase scene – first on top of buildings, reminiscent of Bourne Supremacy (or Casino Royale, if you’re a Bond fan), and later on motorbikes – between another enigmatic secret agent and Cross and Shearing that pump the adrenaline and have us hanging on the edge of our seats. Original, it is not. But thrilling, it is guaranteed.

If the above descriptions still don’t tell you much of the story in this review, then – once again – don’t panic. Watching the movie, you’ll probably come out of the cinema admiring Renner’s excellent performance and his strong chemistry with Weisz (while wishing he had more scenes with Byer) and remembering the great action sequences that Gilroy put together. But you’ll probably have to wait until the DVD comes out, or find the will to shell out yet more money for a second viewing, to properly understand what Bourne Legacy is really saying.

To put it bluntly, The Bourne Legacy will not answer any questions that are carried over from the previous trilogy. It doesn’t even answer its own questions and crop up more of them as the story unfolds. Credit is given to Renner for showing his charm and skills as an actor, but without a coherent story and a strong direction, which Gilroy himself doesn’t have a full handle of, the shadow of Matt Damon still looms heavily. His Bourne films was a journey of identity- and soul-searching. Renner’s Bourne reboot is nothing but a tale of a junkie looking for a fix. And that is, to be honest, the real legacy of this franchise.

THE VERDICT
Not as cerebral as it wishes to be and overly ambitious in its execution, Legacy will please with its thrills and penchant for shocking action. Renner charms but Damon is sorely missed.

Total Recall (2012): Film Review

AH, IT’S THAT TIME of the year again. That time for movie critics and purist fans to lambast The Remakes Nobody Wants Or Needs.

This summer, that title falls to Len Wiseman’s re-imagining of Paul Verhoeven’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring movie, based on a Philip K. Dick short called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, entitled ‘creatively’ Total Recall.

On one hand, I can see where the derision comes from. Verhoeven’s Total Recall is a classic that many people still like to watch. Just like the problem with The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony Pictures does love to raise people’s hackles by making money out of recycling classic stuff. But on the other hand, it’s ridiculous to say that a remake wasn’t necessary. Filmmakers are rarely able to get a pitch perfect portrayal of Philip K. Dick concepts, so as long as the note is still off-key, everybody is welcome to try to polish them to flawless perfection on screen. And I’m glad Len Wiseman took the chance but, really, this so-called remake is not that bad.

There were homages all over the place to the original Total Recall. This is not surprising; Wiseman claimed that he was a fan of the original film. But he chose to set the story on Earth, instead of Mars, and made it as if the event in his film happened for real in the life of his main character, Quaid. These things make the story less fantastical but equally thrilling as the original. I like the ambiguity provided by the original, but the ‘this is real’ sensibility of the story gives the remake added depth.

Neither film came close to interpreting accurately what Dick wrote in his short story. This, too, is unsurprising but if I have to choose which one is closer to the original, I would perhaps pick this 2012 version over the 1990 version. Quaid’s adventure involving Rekall is closer to Quail’s journey with REKAL (although I thought Rekall was severely underused in Wiseman’s movie) and Dick’s concept of dystopian society was more clearly emphasized in this one, without anyone having to travel to another planet (really, nothing says ‘dystopia’ more than a post-apocalyptic Earth). And if the ‘not going to Mars’ factor is the one that worries people most about the story, I would encourage them to stop fretting. Wiseman has, against all odds, created a very cool concept to replace Mars and make the story work through his designs.

And that – the design – is the strength of this remake. Wiseman and his team created a look for their universe that doesn’t only feel plausible, but also cool. Take the hover cars for example. They are ten times more doable for manufacturers to produce in a few decades’ time than the cars seen in Minority Report. The sprawling cityscape of the Colony, with its interconnected buildings, river down the middle and multicultural elements, is also a marvel to look at that. And if that’s not enough, there’s The Fall – it’s Wiseman’s ace in substituting Mars for Earth, which definitely screams ‘science fiction’.

The biggest miss of the movie is the cast. Individually, these actors bring a lot of credibility to their character. Colin Farrell’s Quaid was good enough, Kate Beckinsale’s Lori was a proper badass and Jessica Biel’s Melina was decent. There should be no complaints, except neither of them had any chemistry with each other. I could hardly believe that Lori had a grudge against Quaid and that Melina and Quaid had something romantic going on. Either they were too focused on doing the action scenes rather than making their interactions real, or they were just really a mismatched group of people. There is no doubt that Wiseman had a very good ensemble on his hands; it just seems like he didn’t know what to do with them and would rather focus on designing cool hover cars and other high tech transport systems.

So this film – this remake – is both a hit and a miss. As an adaptation, it works. As a remake, it’s not bad. But as an individual piece of cinema, it’s an incomplete one. It’s probably not going to change the face of genre cinema, nor will it lose the derision of the purists and skeptics, but perhaps it’ll do its job in introducing the Dick/sci-fi concepts to the modern mainstream audience. It’s worth seeing in the cinema but you probably won’t be interested in collecting the DVD.

THE VERDICT
Len Wiseman’s vision of a futuristic dystopian society works in this remake that no one wants. Sadly, while the highest profile project of his career is not hateful, it certainly won’t be loved.

*

The Indonesian version of this review will appear in Total Film Indonesia Issue #35, out in September 2012.

Brave: Film Review

TWELVE FILMS LATER, Pixar finally has what its partner, Disney, has owned for years – a princess. That being said, Pixar is still Pixar and not Disney, so the princess doesn’t get a handsome prince on a white horse that slays monsters for her and becomes her true love. In fact, that’s the one thing Pixar’s princess Merida (voiced by the charming Scot Kelly Macdonald) is not ready for. As a result of her reluctance to marry, she fights with her mother who is intimidating like a bear. Literally.

In what becomes the movie’s central comedic element, said mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), then transforms into a real bear and caused a whole fur of problems for the family. Although in some moments, Brave is terrifyingly dark – especially in 3D; it’s so dark behind the 3D lenses that the many of the animated details are lost – the entire story concocted by Brenda Chapman & Co. are actually hilariously absurd and fantastically entertaining that tears will run down your cheeks as you laugh endlessly for 90 or so minutes. Plus, the voice actors are great – when else can we get an entire movie spoken in Scottish accent?

Mind you, this is no Toy Story or Up, but the contemporary humor is fresh a la Ratatouille. If this makes Brave less ‘Pixar’ for some people, look for Finding Nemo elements in Merida and Mom’s fun and action-packed mother daughter adventure. The fantasy factor is also strong enough to match WALL-E’s level of science fiction goodness, although there’s no masked propaganda in this one.

Bonus eye candy is the charming short animated movie La Luna that precedes the movie. This is one attractive Pixar package that, like it or not, has redeemed them from the sin of Cars 2.

THE VERDICT
This is Finding Nemo princess-style – Pixar continues to wow with a female heroine, Scottish actors and crazy humor that makes up one complete entertainment package. 

*

The Indonesian version of this review will appear in Total Film Indonesia Issue #33, out in July 2012.

The Avengers: Film Review

The Avengers

One big happy superhero family

EARTH IS UNDER SIEGE. The culprit: an ambitious god with a truckload of daddy issues, leading an alien army from a universe far away. Who’re you gonna call? Definitely not the Ghostbusters.

First of all, you should call Nick Fury, the one-eyed director of S.H.I.E.L.D. who bears an uncanny resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson. Then you better hope he still has a couple of cell phone numbers on his phone. For example, Tony Stark’s – that is, “genius playboy billionaire philanthropist” – number and Steve Roger’s, who is – wait. Steve doesn’t have a cell phone. He just woke up from a 70-year hyper-sleep on ice and doesn’t really know how to work one out yet. So who else can he call? Bruce Banner who’s on a self-imposed exile in India? Natasha Romanoff who’s under cover in Russia? Or that guy who likes to perch himself on high surfaces, watches you like a hawk-eyed stalker? Or maybe Fury should start a sacrificial ritual and hope that thunder god Thor would deign Midgardians with his presence. The point is, everyone he’s got who can fight off this alien army is separated all over the globe. And they don’t get along. At least at first.

Bringing them together is a massive undertaking for Fury, but  it’s an even bigger responsibility for Joss Whedon, the Nick Fury of the  Marvel Studios’ latest superhero venture, The Avengers. Imagine – he has to put together 10 famous names from 5 previous films that were worked on by a dozen of other filmmakers in order to A. save  Earth from idiotic superhero films (yes, Green Lantern, we’re looking at you); and B. smash the summer box office.

So, did he manage? Yes. In fact, HELL YES. Not only that, Whedon may have created a new benchmark for comic book superhero movies. (Do excuse us, Nolan.)

Family affair

That The Avengers is a crossover film has already put it on a league of its own, although that doesn’t mean it is without a few complications. On one side, The Avengers already has a tried-and-true fan base from previous films (Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor, Captain America). Whedon himself  also comes with a loyal fan base that follows him from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Firefly and other cult projects. So if the cinemas are brimming with Marvel fans and Whedonites, it’s no surprise, and this way the movie is ensured against box office failure. On the other, Whedon still has to find a red thread that binds the six Avengers together without pissing off these people. And therein lies the challenge.

As it turns out, however, we need not worry – for this director who came into the project without a blockbuster hit in his resumé has done the impossible and emerged as the victor. First, he did it by putting his ego aside. Whedon reportedly consulted with Thor director Kenneth Branagh and Iron Man director Jon Favreau in order to align his Marvel world with its previous incarnations. Second, he imbued the script with his brand of Whedonesque genius. This means getting Robert Downey Jr. to mock Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston for doing a round of “Shakespeare in the park – doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” It also means Hemsworth got to say “he’s adopted” when Scarlett Johansson pointed out how many people Hiddleston had killed. All Whedon, all genius.

And how he wove the strands of tales that had previously existed through his heroes is an admirable feat. From RDJ’s Tony and Chris Evans’ Cap bickering like a kid and his uncle over career choices to Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk solving their differences through fists of fury, as well as Black Widow and Hawkeye’s palpable sense of unresolved sexual tension, Whedon made them all work against the backdrop of the imposing S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarrier and office politics. He’s a like a teacher without a pet – zooming in equally on each of the characters and giving them all an equal chance to shine. And if Fury has to wait until someone’s life is taken away until everyone finally comes together, this is also a testament to Whedon’s bravery for taking risks in order to build a solid story about how 6 individuals could slowly become a team. That, or this is simply a 6-person dysfunctional family. Either way, Whedon has found a way to make the audience root for them. So if any studio wanted to produce their own crossover film, Whedon’s The Avengers is now clearly the standard to follow.

Go green

What’s great about The Avengers is that Whedon presents them the way Marvel comic writers and artists present Earth’s mightiest heroes on paper – colorful, action-packed and using frames that replace comic book panels. To enjoy the Avengers’ kick-ass journey is to read a Marvel comic crossover event – pick one, any one – with fanboy-level focus and enthusiasm. This proves that not everyone has to take the dark and serious path to make a critically acclaimed and universally popular comic book movie. Sometimes, keeping the fantasy elements alive and bringing on an alien army to wreak havoc on Earth is what it takes to win the box office race.

Even The Avengers’ villain Loki is a proper comic villain, with huge ego and even more gigantic penchant for melodrama. He’s not Joker or Lex Luthor, but he’s like a disturbing green fly (with golden horns) that can withstand the most extreme ways of extermination. In other words, highly annoying. His and his writers’ is the direction we should be applauding the loudest.

Speaking of green, it’s about time that Bruce Banner and the Hulk gets a proper screen treatment. It’s safe to say that this is the Hulk that should’ve been around all along. We absolutely cannot resist pumping our fist in the air when we saw that Ruffalo nailed both of his characters. Needless to say, the next thing to anticipate is the next solo Hulk movie – it should be the definitive one.

Considering all of this, how appropriate is it that the climax of the film is determined by green versus green? Loki versus Hulk. Green god versus green rage monster. And the winner is… SMASH.

THE VERDICT
Whedon’s vision and humor serves this epic crossover event without losing its characters’ personalities. Thanks to bromance and Hulk smash, Marvel’s domination soars to new skies.

TALKING POINT
The US military – who apparently likes to lend a helping hand in creating action movies containing military action – allegedly refused to assist with the Avengers production. They thought S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Chitauris were unrealistic enough to merit their services. And yet they helped Battleship. Irony, much?

*

The Indonesian version of this review has appeared in Total Film Indonesia Issue #31, out in May 2012.