Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers Review

The Avengers
Directed by Joss Whedon
Released in 2012

There is no reason to review The Avengers. If you love it, go tweet “#Avengers is awesome / See it!” and be done with it. If you hate it, your words will fall on ears deafened by the cha-chings of $207 million in opening weekend box office receipts, or maybe a Furious Samuel L. Jackson. And if you neither love it nor hate it, like me, then — who cares?

The flaw and triumph of The Avengers is that it succeeds so well in capturing its source material and nothing more. That source material is a line of Marvel comics that started in the 1960s and throws some of Marvel’s most popular characters together to save the world against “foes no single superhero can withstand.” It is a fun, pulpy series, with a lot of macho banter between, and during, action scenes in place of true character development seen in the individual heroes’ stories.

Those superheroes are Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Nick Fury. Say goodbye to the reality of the Iraq War that set the scene for Iron Man, and hello to Norse mythology besides a gamma-radiated beast and former Nazi hunter. Their foe is Thor’s adopted brother, Loki, who seeks to enslave the world with some magical cube that unlocks a portal to another universe. The stakes are so high that it is hard to care. It is more Loki’s ability to sustain perfect posture and speaketh in faux-Middle English while wearing egregious golden horns that convinces me that, yes, this is a job for more than one.

This film is clearly not The Dark Knight and does not pretend to be. I see that as a relief. IMAX agrees, for it holds a strict summer quota on “brooding, depressing, not-so-super hero tragedies.” But The Avengers is not even a hearty, standalone comic adaptation in the vein of Spider-Man 2. Director, co-writer and nerd-throb Joss Whedon basically crafts a superior version of Michael Bay’s Transformers films: irresistible to the eyes, with wit and fan service to spare, yet still without a thread of substance or speck of beauty underneath it all.

Despite the love Whedon is given by Internet culture, his talent displays itself sporadically in the film. With a movie set to top a billion dollars and a budget of over $220 million, it’s disappointing that many of the dialogue scenes possess a cheap aesthetic. To juggle all the characters, the film jumps from one character to another, often using dolly or crane shots to quickly establish a sense of place and familiarity with someone you might not have seen for three minutes (an eternity in a blockbuster). Filmed digitally, a lot of the dialogue looks like that of a TV show — no surprise considering Whedon’s Buffy and Firefly history. But there is a disposable, uninspired feeling to these shots and, further, to whole scenes. Our few moments with, say, Hawkeye are recorded in the same stock fashion as just another ensemble cable drama.

Given its rather simple expectations, however, The Avengers might just benefit from these artistic shortcomings. It is one of the most faithful comic book film adaptations in recent memory, with all the pretty visual motifs, ridiculous scenarios and emotional shallowness you can find in its inspiration. The S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier — an aircraft carrier capable of stratospheric flight — looks crazier in motion than it could possibly appear on hand-drawn panels. Iron Man flying through the city, back facing the ground, is an iconic image brought to life, as is the 360-degree rotating shot of The Avengers, cornered by foes and New York City skyscrapers, prepping for battle. These scenes are just about copied from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original work, but it’s the kind of flattering plagiarism everyone can get behind.

The special effects are obviously remarkable, dazzling, super-duper. I am continually impressed by the different ways Iron Man enters and exits his suit; when he lands on the open-air pad of his own skyscraper, Tony Stark quickly emerges as spinning discs and robotic arms disassemble the intricate exoskeleton. Stark is, of course, blasé to the whole display. In the final action sequence, the camera swoops down streets and up buildings in an uninterrupted, natural flow that follows each hero kicking ass and farming testosterone. Don’t ask who their enemies are (Wikipedia says they are Loki’s army of “Chitauri,” and I am not sure the film said even that) and ignore that they look like a poor mesh of Gears of War’s Locust army and Transformers 3’s flying monsters. Just enjoy the show.

Detailing the story would bore me more than you: Things happen, things are explained, things are never explained. You could toil over the numerous plot holes, or you could just read the comic book — the answers are there, I hope. I did notice some light contemporary political commentary, with Nick Fury as the neoconservative hawk pushing for action, Bruce Banner (The Hulk) as the frustrated diplomat and Captain America as the old-fashioned ideologue of World War II-era America. These tensions manifest in one key scene of verbal conflict and are not addressed afterward, but the film deserves an ‘A’ for its effort, right?

Speaking of The Hulk, Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pacifistic beast steals the show. Ruffalo is a naturally reserved and faintly awkward presence on screen — Bruce Banner incarnate. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark continues to rob all the witty one-liners (before he flies off with Hawkeye in his arms, Stark deadpans, “Clench up, Legolas”), but The Hulk has a few key moments of winning physical comedy, one joke of which set my theater off in an uproar of laughter that didn’t cease until halfway through the next scene.

So, The Avengers is funny as well as entertaining, attractive and exciting. What’s not to love? Truthfully, most of the film’s problems arise from the concept more than the execution. You can say, “Well, it was the best ensemble superhero movie ever!” And I would agree, with such stiff competition and all.

But look: This movie is going to make a billion dollars. Far more than that, actually. With only three days in the States and thirteen worldwide, it has already accrued a staggering $650 million. This is not the last Avengers movie, nor the last Marvel sequel or spin-off. The Avengers sets a decent precedent, one of cheery mirth and harmless arousal. It is not the plethora of explosions and jokes that rubs me wrong. Rather, it is the notion — nay, insult — that we cannot handle anything more.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Perfect Slope Day, Like Every Other

Courtesy of Ryan Landvater
Slope Day is a perfect day. It is nothing less than perfect, even with all its imperfections. Short of an earthquake or norovirus contamination of Tompkins County’s Keystone Light supply, it will always be perfect. One could even convince his inebriated brethren that an earthquake or stomach virus would only further pad the posthumous scrapbook of the day, figuratively and literally.

Let’s start with the Slope itself. 364 days of the year, Libe Slope withstands ridicule from anyone who is forced to scale it. It’s a consensus that catalyzes Ivy Room small talk, excuses for sleeping in and one-too-many Facebook memes. Poor Slope. Yet on May 4, there is no place those wambulance criers would rather be. And they don’t just tolerate the Slope they realize how damn perfect the awful thing is. Not only does the 89-degree angle create a natural stadium for viewing the show, but it also provides a readily available grassy mattress to collapse on and front-row seats to watch those who fail when doing so and tumble down the hill.

Which brings me to the people. You and I were one of them (except you, Mom, I told you not to read this article; can’t you just trust me when I say no one drinks at Cornell?). Even before I entered the fenced-off grounds, I was feeling the love. Quite literally, actually I was vigorously massaged and nearly violated by the horde of woozy students who pushed me to lead the way. I appreciated their confidence in my leadership abilities, but they were not too receptive to my pleas that, as great as I am, even I could not part this Big Red Sea.

In the company of friends, the love never ends. Except if you cannot find said company — noob freshmen like me usually spend more time staring into the impenetrable crowds looking for that one suitemate who hasn’t texted back since 10 a.m. instead of just enjoying the show. All the while, be ready to bump into everyone you have seen over the past year, including many you hoped to never see again. It’s like a giant frat party, except all the lights are on.

As for the music, how can you ask for anything better? Well, you just ask, since there is definitely better but … come on, dude, lighten up! I will call you a liar if you say you didn’t mumble the chorus and jump around during “Hangover.” I will also call you sober and promptly shatter this eight-month-old handle of Svedka over your head.

The party started with The Wailers, Bob Marley’s old backing band. I love Bob Marley. I love all types of reggae music you know, the slow kind and the slower kind with the funky bass. I love weed. I also love Bob Marley, so this was a perfect match. To my alcohol-pot-coke-DMT-skipped-last-lecture-bitches addled mind, The Wailers could have played all of Legend or just one guitar chord on the upbeat. I think I am right on both counts.

Neon Trees was life-changing, of course. Singer Tyler Glenn really seemed like he wanted to be there; he was bouncing about the stage and treating Slope Day like a real gig (which it really is! (really!)). At one point he mentioned how he didn’t go to college, though, and then I grew suspicious. Ever since Justin Bieber ’16 fell through, Glenn knew Slope Day could be a kickass UnCommon App. Apparently C.U. Admissions has canned the idea because Neon Trees didn’t play “Animal” until the end of their set. No matter how much charisma and pink hair you have, Mr. Glenn, you can’t convince us we like any of your other songs.

Before I mention the main act, I have to commend the DJs who played Avicii’s “Levels” between the sets. Everyone on the Slope was so drunk that we might as well have actually hired Avicii to play that one song anyway! Next to slashing funding for the humanities while also expanding Goldwin Smith Hall’s empty hallways, this was the most badass book-balancing exercise the University has undertaken all year.

Meanwhile, the man himself, Taio Cruz, did not disappoint. At least some form of the man, at some time, did not disappoint. The heavy sampling of his recorded material was a wise move on his part: While his detached stage presence failed to connect to Cornell students, he found common ground by touting past accomplishments that were the product of lucky collaborations with more talented contributors. When the sound guy pushed play on David Guetta and Usher’s song, “Without You,” Cruz reminded the audience that he was also one of six writers on that song. The sole “yooouuuuooouuuu” flourishes he added in the chorus reminded me I have a problem set due Sunday that I haven’t copied from someone yet.

Clearly, Slope Day could not have been better. Well, of course it could have been, but like frat hookups and A’s on engineering prelims, there is a certain shittiness, sadness, sacrifice involved in some of the best college experiences. FIJI’s t-shirts captured it well, with their back text of “Drink Until You Like Taio Cruz.” Since everyone already likes him, I am assuming FIJI just meant drink until you like him more. Still, it is a clever line and I’d buy drinks for whoever thought of it, even if I would go broke.

Those shirts are only further proof that Slope Day is the perfect day; we gather en masse and drink and roast in the sun until we pass out. It is so simple, with absolutely no room for error because the error is the whole game. We love to abuse ourselves after the abuse of months’ prior, and we come back, bleary-eyed and shambling, every year.

Who’s up for Chris Brown for next year?

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link. And, yes, this is a satire.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to Make a Billion Dollars

Courtesy of Santi Slade
While the weather may have its own agenda, summer is almost here — four days away, in fact. No, not because classes end then. And not Slope Day, either, though with all the alcohol and sweat it might as well feel like it.

No, this Friday, May 4, The Avengers will open in theaters across the country, unofficially inaugurating the start of the summer movie season. Marvel is hoping you and I are excited about this movie; in 2010, summer “began” May 7, with Iron Man 2, and last year on May 6, with Thor (at this rate, in 60 years, Hologram Nick Fury vs. The Royale With Cheese will kick off summer on February 19, 2072).

Lots of money is on the table for this one. Consider how each summer for the past four years has featured big-screen advertisements for this very film. They all did well (the weakest was The Incredible Hulk, which earned $263 million worldwide), but so far all of these films have eluded that coveted $1 billion landmark. Disney — who put $4 billion down for its acquisition of Marvel Comics and all its associated properties — does not want to lose any more dough on its films, especially with the colossal failure of John Carter earlier this year.

Will The Avengers cross the totally arbitrary $1 billion worldwide gross threshold, which only 11 other films have passed to date? It seems likely to considering that seven of those billion dollar babies were released in the past four years, with three films alone released last year. The trailer depicts actors we love (veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr., along with rising stars Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth), an actress men love to ogle (Scarlett Johansson, conveniently wearing a skintight costume) and explosions in a metropolitan setting. (Has anyone else noticed how our discomfiting fetish with city destruction has only accelerated post-9/11? Look at every Transformers or Roland Emmerich film we watch). Oh, and the movie is good too, with upwards of 96-percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes. But we are speaking about the bottom line here, so silly things like whether a movie you pay $12 for is “good” or not are kept at the door.

After this weekend, in which The Avengers will undoubtedly deliver a huge turnout upwards of $120-140 million, the box office curve will naturally slope downwards. Last year’s Harry Potter reached $1 billion in 19 days. No matter how much comic book geeks obsess over Hawkeye’s long-awaited inclusion or Captain America’s abdominals, there’s no beating Dumbledore’s Army. It was this similar, though skewed younger, demographic that launched The Hunger Games into stratospheric financial success, with the third best opening weekend of all time at $155 million, the number to beat this summer. But even Games has a long ways to go to hit a billion clams, as the $600 million it has made to date worldwide, after 38 days in theaters (which still slays the rest of the year, by the way), reveals its weak sustainability. Think about how the waves of pre-teens (I will not use the “twe-” word) saw the movie: They screamed at their moms about Katniss and Peeta enough to get them willing to drive to the theater or even hooked themselves. But then it’s back to work and back to school.

So, Marvel’s biggest yet will likely not pull in the explosive first weekend but looks more set to survive. How about the rest of the summer? Expect good showings from Men in Black III (the first real impediment to Avengers, three weeks after), Brave (Pixar’s newest won’t mine the lucrative merchandising goldmine like Cars or Toy Story, but should boast a creative return to form a la Wall-E) and Prometheus (an R rating may hold it back from a few but not from the droves of adults looking for a mature option).

I expect The Bourne Legacy to underperform, because while the original films defied expectations, many still do not know leading man Jeremy Renner and the studios are dumping it off at August, which usually signals hesitance. The Amazing Spider-Man does not have to apologize for the franchise’s awful third movie, for that still accrued nearly $900 million worldwide, and it will fare better than many think (say, $80 million opening, $650 million worldwide finish). Same goes for Ice Age: Continental Drift, which will likely pull in unimpressive domestic sales but skyrocket in the increasingly critical foreign markets. There’s something about animation and mysterious megafauna that turns on those across the pond(s). Ask Kung Fu Panda.

It’s the easy answer, but put your money on The Dark Knight Rises as king of the summer. Its predecessor hit a billion with over 50-percent of its total gross in domestic box office, the only case in the billion dollar movie club. While this film may not have the Heath Ledger scuttlebutt to energize its P.R., its varied cast (read: women) and intriguing art direction (read closer: women in tights) will entice more foreign crowds this time around. If the trailers play up its conclusiveness of the Nolan saga (so they say) and Bane’s bizarre physical presence while hiding the silly American football scenes, Batman can soar all the way to Tokyo … again.

My columns are usually about big ideas and my struggle to comprehend and reconcile them with my daily life. This entry is rather anti-intellectual, not about big ideas but rather big numbers. And when the summer ends and all my above predictions prove wrong, enough time will have passed so that you forget I ever made them. I think this Cornell education might be actually starting to pay off.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.