Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.

Classic Review: Jurassic Park

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: A film with effects I can only describe as magical and which also changed the way movies are made.

Review: Well, since James quite literally stole my thunder by getting to ‘Thor’ before me, this week I’ll instead be reviewing the cinematic milestone of 1993, ‘Jurassic Park’.

Along with various Disney films, ‘Jurassic Park’ was my earliest movie experience, and it was by far cooler than anything Mickey Mouse could show me.  My parents had somehow glanced over the fact that it was, in fact, a PG-13 film, and so, at between the ages of, say, four and seven, I darn near wore out our VHS tape of it, engrossed in all its dinosaur-awesomeness.  Perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though…

‘Jurassic Park’ was based on the best-selling book of the same name by science fiction writer, Michael Crichton; it told the tale of a science project gone wrong as genetically engineered dinosaurs, bred for a theme park on a remote island, escaped and terrorized the visitors.  The book caught the interest of legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who spent the early 1990’s developing it for the silver screen.  In the process, he, along with Stan Winston and ILM, pioneered some of the most advanced special effects (most notably CGI) for their time to bring the film’s dinosaurs to life, forever changing the way Hollywood made films.

And what magic they brought to the screen.  As a kid, I was convinced that the creatures I was viewing on my television screen were real, living dinosaurs.  Everything from the first shot of the Brachiosaurus to the final shot of the T-rex looked alive, and to this day, even as computers have vastly increased in power, they still hold up.  It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of Spielberg himself, who worked painstakingly to ensure that these animals were as life-like as possible.  Everything from their movement, to the way they interacted with the physical world, to the way they sounded was undeniably polished, and the result was one of the most powerful experiences a child like myself could hope for.  And that’s really what makes this movie work so well: it’s the sense of child-like awe and wonder at these creatures.  There is a true sense of majesty, for instance, when the audience sees the Brachiosaurus for the first time, complete with one of John Williams’ most beautiful scores, as it grazes on a hill.  It’s a beautiful sequence that has the main characters, and the audience as well, frozen in amazement at the animal before us.  It’s a powerful sequence and one of my favorite film moments of all time.  It is moments like this that make the film work.

Now, I would be lying if I said that the film was flawless.  Unfortunately, by paying so much attention to the film’s dinosaurs, Spielberg and Co. didn’t focus enough on the human characters or the actual story.  The original book had a strong plot that was centered on the inner workings of Chaos Theory and the moral dilemma of pushing scientific boundaries: whether something as earth shattering as genetically engineering dinosaurs could ever be controlled or should ever even be done.  The characters as well, notably Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, and even the two children, were all nicely fleshed out.  In the film…eh…. not so much.  There is great potential for the characters, and if the script had been brushed up a bit, they’d have really nice arcs; but as is they seem a tad underdeveloped and over-simplified.  In particular, Ian Malcolm, a witty mathematician who delivers the story’s central theme during a climactic speech half-way through the book, is reduced to a sarcastic jerk who gives a watered-down version of the same speech early in the movie.  After words the very theme of scientific morality itself gets buried under a wave of dinosaurs and chase scenes, and the characters boil down to the victims in a horror movie.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re cool dinosaurs and great chase scenes, directed under the skilled hand of Spielberg; but it does turn the plot into more of an amusement park thrill ride than an actual story.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in a sense, not every movie has to be ‘Citizen Kane’; some movies can just be fun (and this movie certainly is) and look cool (and this movie certainly does) but it does set a bad example for other filmmakers who don’t share Spielberg’s sense of wonder and awe.

You see, we live in something of a post-‘Jurassic Park’ movie world.  The blockbuster success of the movie changed the way Hollywood looked at special effects and stories, much the way ‘Star Wars’ had done 16 years earlier.  ‘Jurassic Park’ unlocked the true potential of the computer and ushered in a new era where CGI has made anything possible, but it also ushered in an era when some filmmakers believe special effects can tell their stories for them.  Think about it: how many movies since ‘Jurassic Park’ have come out that employ its same level of CGI?  A great many.  And how many of those movies have, unfortunately, relied on those effects to bolster an otherwise lousy or unfinished script?  Too many.  As it turns out, this sort of dilemma is not too dissimilar to the scientific dilemma depicted (unsuccessfully) in ‘Jurassic Park’.  How should this new technology be used? CGI is a powerful tool for filmmaking and has made some extraordinary films, but without a respect for it and knowledge of its limits, it’s too easily abused, and some very awful films have been the result.

That all said though, perhaps I am, again, getting a little ahead of myself here.  Who am I to judge something as vast and varied as the way special effects are used in film or what films ought to focus on?  Especially since it has allowed for the creation of so many that I love, including ‘Jurassic Park’.  And that brings me back to my main point, which is that ‘Jurassic Park’ is ultimately a great film.  It’s great because Steven Spielberg maintains at its core, the marvel and imagination for dinosaurs that only children can experience.  These were truly the most amazing creatures to ever walk the earth, and Spielberg captures their mystery beautifully.  As a kid I loved this film, and today I still do.  Whatever the long-lasting impact of this film is or will be, better or worse, the film itself is a winner.

So, if by chance you, the movie-goer, haven’t seen this modern-day classic, rent it, Netflix it, borrow it, buy it, whatever.  Give it a watch, and you too will see a truly awesome piece of cinematic history, 65 million years in the making (drum and crash cymbal!)

Classic Review: F For Fake

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An excellent film — a sort of metadocumentary — that exposes its own artifice and the relationship between truth and trust.

Review:  In the 1973 film ‘F For Fake’, over 88 minutes cinematic genius Orson Welles examines the nature of art in a filmic form not quite documentary and not quite fiction.   It’s proof that the peculiar magic of the medium is not restricted to the categories dreamed up by marketing departments.  ‘F For Fake’ is a truly self-aware film.  It doesn’t merely acknowledge its artifice in a humorous, superficial way; it turns itself inside out.  It is edited in such a way as to obfuscate our attempts to sort out truth and fiction.  It’s like a photograph of a flower-pot hiding its very subject immediately behind it.  For us viewers at Mr. Welles’ mercy, the question is, when are we looking at the proverbial flower-pot?

Orson Welles is brazen and beguiling as he guides us through the twisted tale of an infamous art forger and his equally infamous biographer.  Throughout the story, he weaves in a bizarre fiction and chases rabbits down their trails.  Mr. Welles promises to tell us the truth whilst declaiming himself as a charlatan akin to his subjects.  Welles in his own estimation is untrustworthy, but we believe him anyway, and that is precisely his point!

While he’s at it, he subtly explores sexuality’s use as a deceptive device, through two sequences in which a beautiful woman distracts us from the ideas at play.  He seems to suggest that physical beauty is often used by filmmakers to divert our attention from both flaws and substantive content.  That’s consistent with how often sex appeal determines casting, particularly in works of a shallower nature.  It wouldn’t be enough to say that this is just good business.  Even if it has become second nature, these techniques are a kind of sleight-of-hand.  The plot could disappear into a deep hole, but your basic instincts might not let you notice.  And, for a storyteller more intent on complexity, using human desires to his or her advantage is a simple and effective way to get an audience’s attention while they work past the mind’s more intricate defenses.

In a film-craft sense, ‘F For Fake’ is really brilliant, with rapid cuts, repetitions, and instantly evocative imagery creating a captivating kaleidoscope.  For those of us in the post-MTV world who have to endure and sometimes enjoy the films of Michael Bay and others like him, it’s positively redeeming to see prototypes of postmodern techniques used so meaningfully.  Paired and contrasted with the classic techniques of ‘Citizen Kane’, it’s perhaps the ultimate example of Orson Welles’ range and influence.

‘F For Fake’ revolves around a simple premise: What we believe is true relies on who we believe is trustworthy.  It is a reminder that those we call experts — such as the art dealers defrauded by Elmyr de Hory — also rely on other people for estimates of the truth.  Considering that a painting mimicking an original may trick even the finest eye, what then is an original’s value?  Isn’t it possible to derive the same pleasure from an original and a fake?  If a duped museum believes that a clever fake is the genuine article, and displays it under this pretense, would the viewers in effect be seeing an original, or even the original by proxy?

The film challenges the notion that art’s virtue is in the truth of itself.  Art, genuine or forgery, is properly measured by how well it convinces us.  Aristotle observed, in reference to theatrical art, that (and the emphasis is mine) “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.”  In short, it’s a noble deception by which we hope to accomplish an emotional change in those who, for at least a little time, choose to believe it.  As in the case of a painting, a film’s communicated truth is in its emotional effect on the viewer.

One hopes that a filmmaker is responsible and doesn’t betray our confidence by convincing us of ignoble things; but what is there to stop them?  My hope as a filmmaker and a critic is to be an honest charlatan.  I’d like to echo Mr. Welles, who in this magic act says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”

The Social Network

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Though mired by its distortions of true events, ‘The Social Network’ is a gripping, must-see character study.

Review:  There are some films that defy our attempts to digest them.  They’re so rich and layered and thought-provoking that they demand further analysis, compelling us to return to the meal one stomach-bursting bite at a time.  David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ is, as you can tell by my obvious lead-in, one such movie.  What makes it really fascinating, though, is that dares to exist at all.  Facebook isn’t even a decade old and Mark Zuckerberg, its much-envied CEO, hasn’t yet reached 30.  One would think it’s a little early for a gutsy, revisionist biopic, but apparently not in the hyper-accelerated world of 2010, where memetic mutation takes place at an incredible rate.

‘The Social Network’ is not, in fact, the true story of Facebook, but it is an extremely fascinating character study.  Mark Zuckerberg’s reputation will now have to compete with that of his fictional counterpart, brilliantly played by Jesse Eisenberg, who I hope gets the Oscar.  It’s really eerie to see popular media process a person into a character; I would say that we usually have the grace to wait until the person dies, but that isn’t true.  The media does it to celebrities of all kinds every day.  ‘The Social Network’ could be just an extreme example of society’s attempt to make challenging personalities more convenient, but the filmmakers rescued it.  Though the filmmakers chose to tell the story in their own way, the driving questions behind the narrative remain unresolved, which reminds us in the audience that the real story and its resolution is still out here, in our real world.  That’s what makes ‘The Social Network’ so damn rich.

Other critics have compared it to ‘Rashomon’ and ‘Citizen Kane’, through its use of multiple perspectives on events and enigmatic persons.  It’s a great deal more subtle, though, and doesn’t call attention to the shifts to each point-of-view.  Being kept so ambiguous, it opens the film to endless questions, which will of course lead to bigger inquiries about ethics.  I heard such discussions taking place immediately after I stepped out of the theater.  That, to me, is why ‘The Social Network’ is a significant film.  It’s exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for all the time at The Silver Mirror; films that provoke infinite reflections.  It is proof that the human journey carries on.  I’m thinking ‘The Social Network’ will win Best Picture.