Top 10… Active Directors

I recently appeared on episode #164 of the Lambcast, along with Nick from the Cinematic Katzenjammer, Pat from 100 Years of Movies and Kristen from Journeys in Classic Film. Our chosen topic of discussion was our top five active directors, and provoked some interesting thoughts including why none of us like Terrence Malick. I recommend listening to the episode, if only to hear us ruthlessly mock Nick for his first-time presenting skills, but the show also inspired me to expand upon my list for this week’s Top 10.

So today, here is my list of Top 10 Active Directors. My choices are generally based on two things: the director’s recent body of work, and their upcoming work or last film(s). This prevented me from putting, say, Steven Spielberg as no. 1 purely on the basis of Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, because technically he is still working today, but in my opinion he peaked a good few years ago

Honourable mentions:

Fincher

This is a list for which there could potentially be dozens of honourable mentions, but I’ve managed to narrow it down to just a few. First up is David Fincher, who has yet to make a film I haven’t at least liked, if not really loved. The reason he hasn’t placed higher is that although I’m always eager to see his films, I’ve never actually made it into the cinemas to see them, and I’ve had the DVD of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sat on my bookshelf for almost 6 months and still haven’t watched it. There’s no real reason for this other than finding the time to watch it with my girlfriend not around – there could be more rape scenes than she’d enjoy – but I feel my lack of excitement excludes him from the list. Next is Joss Whedon, whose Avengers Assemble was every bit as awesomely exhilarating as I’d hoped, and the trailer for Much Ado About Nothing looks decent too. Plus, the dude made Serenity, and has Avengers 2 on his slate. Other names I’d considered include Zack Snyder (who alas has had two unappealing flops for his most recent films, but Man of Steel looks promising), Martin Scorsese (I don’t deny he makes incredible films, but I don’t actually out-and-out love any of them as much as others seem to) and Sam Mendes (I loved Skyfall, Away We Go, American Beauty and Road to Perdition, but I don’t think he has any films in the works). The likes of Andrew Stanton, Danny Boyle, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Adam McKay, James Gunn and Gore Verbinski can be considered as honourable mentions for the honourable mentions list. Continue reading

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Avengers Assemble

Ugh, typing that name made me feel so dirty. Avengers Assemble. Ugh. There was nothing wrong with just The Avengers, no-one was going to go in expecting umbrellas, bowler hats and catsuits, and even if they had been, they’d have got something better anyway. Plus, ‘Assemble’ is possibly the least exciting word to ever appear in a movie title since The Adjustment Bureau.
Now chances are this isn’t the first Avengers review you’ve read, hell chances are this isn’t even the first Avengers review you’ve read that starts off by telling you it’s not the first Avengers review you’ve read, seeing as this is one of those movies (let’s not kid ourselves by calling it a film, this is for entertainment purposes only) seemingly designed to be discussed at length on the Internet. We’ve sat through 4 years of 5 prequels, and for literally years the Internet has been lying in wait to rip apart this inevitable car crash of a movie. Which makes it something of a surprise that not only is it not bad, it’s bloody good.
No-one saw this coming. They said it couldn’t be done. I agreed. The last few Avengers prequels hadn’t been great, especially Iron Man 2 and Captain America (I don’t know what everyone has against Thor, I thought Kenneth Branagh did a good job with a lesser-known character) and I firmly believed that throwing six superheroes at one another in the same film was going to look like something Hulk had sat on. The only things it had going for it were a stellar cast and a solid director in Joss Whedon, of whom I’m unashamedly a fanboy (other than I’ve never seen an episode of Buffy or Angel). Whedon is known for handling rambling, ensemble casts (Firefly) and has always managed to balance action with snappy dialogue, drama with romance and a hefty dollop of comedy, but I didn’t think there was a great enough female presence here to draw his attention, with Black Widow as the only main girl. So, going in, my hopes were high but my expectations primed for mediocrity, so it’s a pleasure to say that I honestly can’t think of many ways the film could have been handled better.
Essentially, this is an origin movie. What’s unusual is that most of the main characters have already had at least one movie of their own, mostly origin stories, so what we have here is the beginnings of a culmination of pre-established characters. You don’t necessarily need to have seen all of the other films before watching this one, but I think it’d help, as the plot is partially set-up within Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America, in terms of the basis of the Avengers, the bad guy and the maguffin. I saw this with my girlfriend, who hadn’t seen Thor but had all the rest, and she didn’t need much explaining to her other than that Thor’s devious brother Loki isn’t played by Michael Fassbender, but is instead the brilliant Tom Hiddleston, who performs ably as the primarily sole lead bad guy against an entire team of heroes.
It would have been very easy, and very foolish, to have made this Iron Man & Co, seeing as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is undoubtedly the most enigmatic and entertaining character on screen, yet wisely Whedon scaled down the potential for the Stark Show into giving him just as much time on screen as everyone else. There is no lead character here, everyone gets their moments, no-one is our entry point into the team and there appears to be no jostling for the limelight. In fact, the first people we meet are the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill and the ever dependable Clark Gregg’s Coulson (“Phil? His first name is Agent.”). These guys, along with existing Avengers members Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) then set about recruiting the rest of the team from across the world (and a little bit further, in Thor’s case).
Once recruited, the plot revolves around a Transformers-esque power cube known as the Tesseract that Loki has obtained, and intends to use to rule the Earth. Yadda-yadda-ya, it’s not all that important, and isn’t what you’re here to see. No, we’re here to watch some superheroes fight, bicker, argue and smash. I’ve heard arguments that there isn’t quite enough action in this 142-minute movie to satisfy, but I found the dialogue scenes to be just as entertaining. As expected, the superheroes, all previously alphas in their own movies, don’t initially gel together all that easily, and Iron Man keeps the insults flying at his comrades (Thor is referred to as “Shakespeare in the park,” Captain America is ribbed for being an old man). It’s clear this isn’t just friendly banter.
When the action scenes do come along, including one mid-way through worthy of any summer tentpole finale, they will have you marvelling at everything. And the actual finale, involving a mass brawl around New York City, features an incredible tracking shot that finds all the Avengers showing off the only way they know how, that I can only fault by being not long enough. Granted, with such a large cast there are occasional incidents of characters appearing to be forgotten or sidelined temporarily whilst the others are front and centre, but this isn’t too noticeable at the time, and doesn’t distract from the action.
Unlike his previous films, here the Hulk is neither under nor overused, and is easily one of the best aspects of the movie. Mark Ruffalo, taking the giant green reins from Edward Norton, delivers possibly the greatest Hulk yet, portraying Dr. Bruce Banner as an amiable everyman only too aware of the situation he’s in. He’s rewarded with some of the best, and funniest moments from the film, not least his one-on-one meeting with Loki.
Whedon seems unable to let a few trademarks go, though discussing them could be delving a little too deep into spoiler territory, but look out for a couple of cameos from his other projects, as well as appearances from Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany and Stellan Skarsgard all reprising roles from the prequels. Natalie Portman, however, is conspicuous only by her absence. Bizarrely, the likes of Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton and Jenny Agutter also crop up in tiny roles.
Some moments seem entirely shot for trailers, and I was a bit annoyed that my knowledge of Marvel’s upcoming slate and a couple of shots from the trailers ensured that some of the would-be tense moments were obviously going to be resolved (albeit awesomely), but that’s my fault for watching trailers. There is a scene to wait for after the credits, but unless you’re a fan of the comic books there’s really no point, as I had no idea what the scene was about when it appeared until I delved around the web once home. All-in-all, I’ve very little to fault about the film, other than the incessant use of ass-level shots as characters walks away from the camera. I’m genuinely tempted to go and watch it again at the cinema, something to this day I’ve never done before, and I’m not the least bit annoyed that talks are already being made about an Avengers sequel.
Choose film 9/10

Unlisted: The Cabin in the Woods

Five college kids head for a vacation in a deserted shack (or cabin) in a remote forest (or woods), with no-one around for miles and a very creepy basement. So far, so Evil Dead. Or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or… well, you get the point, but the fact this is written and produced by Joss Whedon, and co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, one of the men behind Lost, should tell you that this is no ordinary textbook horror.
The recent years have seen the horror genre be evaluated, analysed and turned on its head, with the likes of Wes Craven’s Scream franchise and Tucker and Dale Vs Evil, and also imbued with a greater sense of comedy, for example Shaun of the Dead and Severance, to name two prime British examples. Cabin in the Woods takes these films and goes much further, leaving you rethinking every slasher movie you’ve ever seen.
I’m going to do my best to not reveal spoilers here, but if you’re trying to avoid them then chances are you probably aren’t reading this. The trailers have been criticised for perhaps showing more plot than is strictly necessary, revealing that there is more to this cabin than meets the eye, but I personally feel this is essential for the trailer (though it could have been hinted at more subtly) else the only trade the film would have made would be from the slasher fans willing to pay to see them at the cinema, of which I most certainly am not. My only trailer annoyance was the use of a scene or two from the third act that, though I’d only seen the trailers once, still stuck with me and left me waiting for them, over-thinking the plot as I went.
The performances are all wonderful, particularly practically unknown Tim De Zarn as the token redneck doomsayer the kids encounter on their way, and there’s some casting coups for fellow Whedon-ites in Dollhouse’s Amy Acker and Fran Kranz (whose Topher Brink is, occasional Firefly cameo aside, the best thing about Dollhouse) as well as Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.
I have very few faults with the movie. One came because I’m a film nerd, and caught the signposted closing cameo from a recognisable voice, and the third act feels a little off the rails at times, but in an exhilarating, thoroughly entertaining way, although I did question why exactly that big red button was there. I look forward to pouring through the features when it’s released on DVD, and it’s the first film in a while that I’m actually considering going to the cinema and watching again. Go see this film, it’s truly wonderful, especially if you’ve ever seen a film with a cabin and some woods, and chances are you have.
Choose film 9/10

Serenity

As I sit here in my Browncoats t-shirt, Firefly and Dollhouse boxsets worn and well loved on the shelf, it could be said that I’m a little biased about Serenity, Joss Whedon’s Firefly spinoff, created to tie up some of the loose threads after the incredibly popular and successful TV show was inexplicably cancelled after just one hugely entertaining series. Don’t be fooled, it’s not just another Star Trek, Battlestar or Farscape, Firefly is entirely its own creature, described more as a western, that just happens to be set largely in space, in the distant future after the Earth’s resources have been depleted and mankind has sought domicile elsewhere, ‘terra-forming’ other worlds to create habitable Earth-like planets.
All I can do is compare this to the TV show, but this is a mistake, and something I really don’t advise. The show had fourteen 45 minute episodes to introduce the characters and build on their relationships, steadily building a fan-base whilst taking the characters on various adventures and quests, whereas Serenity must introduce said characters, display and possibly develop their respective personalities and relationships, and also take them on some kind of journey, all within the space of a couple of hours, whilst covering as little familiar ground as possible, so as not to annoy the existing fans. It does this well enough, with an early extended steadi-cam shot establishing the members of the central crew-come-family, their individual characteristics, unusual manner of speech (“she is starting to damage my calm”) as they make their way around the good ship Serenity, even introducing new characters, like Chiwetel Eijofor’s nameless operative and David Krumholtz’s Mr. Universe, essentially a trial for the character of Topher in Dollhouse (and what is Inara but a doll herself?).  Some of the dialogue and mythology is a little thick for the uninitiated, but if anything it should pique their interest, enticing them to watch the show and embrace the culture.
Personally, after the events of Serenity, I’d rather they didn’t continue Firefly with any more series (although I don’t think there’s much danger of that) as certain characters are lost and conclusions reached that made the original show what it was. To find out exactly what I’m talking about, go forth and view at your pleasure, I guarantee you’ll find it shiny.
Choose film 8/10