Review – Avengers Assemble

Review – Avengers Assemble

2012, 142 mins, 12A, Dir. Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson

The Avengers

In a recent survey of thousands of cinemagoers by the ticketing agency Fandango, it was found that The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble as it is called in the UK (for fear of confusion with the 1960s television series), is the most anticipated blockbuster of the year. Statistically more people want to see it than even the final Dark Knight installment. After all, publicity had been building since 2008 with the release of several Marvel movies (The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man; Thor et al) that foreshadowed this moment: the promise of a film that would put several superheroes in the same universe was tantalisingly brilliant. And who better to helm the project than Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy and Firefly, a fiercely talented writer and filmmaker? Now that it has finally arrived, does it live up to its expectations? Does it truly give us the epic spectacle of action and characters that we were hoping for? 

In a word, yes. Avengers Assemble is an absolute thrill from beginning to end, outclassing every single Marvel film that led up to this – even the really good ones. In fact, it is one of the greatest superhero films ever produced. Instead of just one, Whedon gives us six protagonists and yet still allocates enough time and effort to explore them – their backstories, beliefs and traits. And these characters are well-acted, too. The nonchalant Downey Jr. and spirited Hemsworth are, as always, hard to resist, but Johansson is particularly excellent as Black Widow. As is typical of Whedon’s work, the female character is a strong heroine and not a mere love interest; she exerts an authoritative force that equals that of the men. The Hulk is also interestingly done – Mark Ruffalo is the first actor to play both Banner and the Hulk itself, donning a motion-capture suit for the more charged sequences. Samuel L. Jackson is, as always, charismatic in his role.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

What’s more, the action sequences are fantastic, whether it’s Black Widow beating up three mobsters whilst tied down in a chair or the near-destruction of Manhattan (where else?) by the main villain, Loki: a breathtaking extended sequence which, thanks to splendid work from the special effects department, is utterly seamless and a joy to watch. And it’s funny. Very, very, very funny. Each of our heroes think they are better than the rest and this leads to inevitable bickering, ironic given that a world invasion is taking place. This contest of greatness even makes its way onto the battlefield in one hilarious scene which I won’t spoil. Although the plot is a little thin without the other Marvel films, it is a triumph in terms of dialogue, and we can only hope that the sequel, if there is one, is given due care.

Thor and Captain America get ready to fight Loki’s army.

A load of us, when we went to see Thor, Captain America and the rest, waited patiently until the end of the credits for a sequence that would hint at what was coming next. And I’m glad to say that the time was well-spent. Avengers Assemble is a triumph, a film that combines the best of the Marvel universe and yet still gives us enough time with each character. With its blend of superhero action and intelligent writing, it captures the spirit of old-style comics beautifully. The final battle sequence is an astonishing feat of special effects, an exciting and exhilarating turn of events that is brilliantly directed and edited. And, of course, it’s absolutely hilarious.

8/10

Review – War Horse

Review – War Horse

2011, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston

Warning! This review may contain minor spoilers (only of set-pieces, not of the plot/ending).

War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of War Horse is one of two films released in the past year that have thrown you back to his career in the 1980s, the other being The Adventures of Tintin. After a flurry of more serious and dark-hearted films (which nonetheless retained at least a few tendons of Spielberg’s more playful senses) alongside the crushingly disappointing fourth Indiana Jones installment, 2011 has been a great return for the director. War Horse retains the sense of adventure and emotional drama that is characteristic of the early works of Spielberg, not coming out with many surprises, but certainly an enjoyable experience for most.

Based principally on the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and gaining inspiration from the far more successful 2007 stage play, War Horse is an intriguing story of a farmboy in the early 20th century who, after training a horse that comes into his possession, is shocked to find that it has been registered to help with the war effort. The young boy, named Albert, is conscripted into the army and tries to find his beloved friend in the midst of the devasting First World War. The story of the injustices of war and the undying hope of one young lad is Spielbergian in itself and it’s quite obvious that he is the man for the job.

Despite this, a sizeable amount of Albert’s journey (especially to the war front) is left out of the final film, which still stands at nearly two and a half hours. For an extended period midway we see and hear nothing from the boy and thus a certain portion of the emotional effect (considering his young age in the story) is lost. It is worth noting, however, that the film is not necessarily Albert’s; it is Joey the horse’s. We follow his journey through the hellish battlegrounds of war, from a fatal cavalry charge to his painful entanglement in between the British and German trenches. He is our main protagonist, our main lead, and we vouch for him, although Albert’s role overall is somehow lost in translation.

Never mind. The acting is superb. Young newcomer Jeremy Irvine gives a confident and gripping performance while Peter Mullan and Emily Watson provide great support as his mother and father. Worth mentioning are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston who, while only appearing in a few scenes, are utterly convincing as the young, idealistic British army officers. But Spielberg is the real star here. After forty years in the business he is certainly an expert in mise-en-scène; every shot is immaculately framed alongside some beautiful transitioning with the help of regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski.

While the stage play is more stripped-down and raw, the film is on a much greater scale with its epic battle scenes and rich score by John Williams, his best work in a while. The director is no stranger to war violence as we all know and War Horse does not shy away from it. In fact, it’s remarkably gritty for its rating, not very gory, but certainly a tough watch in parts. The camera doesn’t flinch during the punishment of two German deserters; this style is very much reminiscent of Spielberg’s uncompromisingly brutal Schindler’s List. War Horse, then, is lighter Spielberg with darker elements, as oppose to the films in the mid to late nineties that proved him to be more than just a popcorn director.

War Horse is an excellent film. Its virtuoso directing, marvellous acting and set-pieces form a film that harks back to the restless adventure of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has a strong emotional core and is bound to be loved by audiences, although its story somewhat lacks in consistency; the stage play is superior on that front.

4 stars out of 5.