Thursday, May 31, 2012


A new horror film that I was anxiously waiting for was Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact”.  Back at Sundance in 2011, McCarthy presented a short film with the same name, and it was so well received that he was able to find financing to expand the story and re-do it as a feature film.  At the time of this writing, I have still been unable to see the short film but I have watched the small trailer they made for it.  It looked to be very atmospheric and well shot but it showed little of the actual story.  So why was I anticipating “The Pact” so much then?  I am almost embarrassed to say that it was because of the film’s poster.  During the time they were shooting the feature, a poster was released to promote the film (it is the poster above).  It was such a creepy, almost fairytale like image, that immediately caught my eye and the bold use of the black and yellow colouring made it stand out from the pack.  From this single image I was hooked and knew that I would have to see this film, which I am now happy to report that I have indeed done just that.

The film is about a twenty-something girl named Annie who returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother to help her sister, Nicole, organize the packing up of her mother’s belongings.  However when she gets to the house, she finds that her sister is gone and has apparently been missing for a few days.  Knowing her sister to be an ex-drug addict, Annie is less worried than she should be, but when she finds Nicole’s phone lying in a closet, she starts to feel that something may not be right here.

It is obvious from the outset that Annie’s (and most probably Nicole’s too) childhood was not a happy one and that she suffered some kind of abuse while living in this house.  Her relationship with her mother was also not a good one either.  Being back at this place after all this time away stirs up memories in Annie that she thought were long forgotten, memories that don’t appear to be too pleasant.  From the very first night she moves back into the house, strange things start to occur with fridge doors opening by themselves, objects constantly disappearing or being moved, and she is constantly hearing strange noises within the walls.  Not only that, but Annie is sure that she can fell a ghostly presence around her.

At her mother’s funeral, Annie runs into an old school friend who also happens to be looking after Nicole’s young daughter.  Annie offers the two of them a room at her mother’s place so they can stay the night.  This night is even stranger than the one previous as this time Annie is physically dragged by an unseen force and after her friend disappears too Annie flees with her niece and swears never to return to the house ever again.  The next morning Annie goes to the police to explain about the night’s events and to report both Nicole and her friend missing.  There she meets an officer named Creek who appears to be the only one taking her story seriously and he agrees to investigate to find out just what exactly is going on in that house.  Is it haunted by a ghost and if so, just who is the ghost?  Does something from Annie’s past play a key to all of this?  What does this all have to do with a serial killer known only as “Judas”?  What is the pact of the title?

This is another one of those films that the less you know going into it the better it is going to be.  However I must say that “The Pact” was a bit of a letdown for me.  It just wasn’t able to hold the creepy atmosphere throughout the film that was so strong in the film’s trailer.  Do not get me wrong, there are indeed creepy moments (the physical appearances of the ghost are very well done), it is just that the atmosphere was never sustained.  The film is quite derivative of films past, and it does have a been there done that sort of vibe to it.  I have no problem with films retreading the same ground, as long as they bring something new or fresh to it, and for me “The Pact” just didn’t do enough of that.  Another problem I had with the film was the use of characters as plot devices.  The worst example is about half way through the film when we are introduced to Stevie, who amazingly is a blind psychic girl, and is only introduced to further the plot.  The filmmakers needed a way for Annie to communicate with the dead, and they came up with a girl that she used to go to school with that just happened to have this ability.  It is during this moment also that the most embarrassing line in the script occurs when Annie asks Stevie “Can you really do that thing everyone says you can do?”.  As soon as Stevie has moved the plot forward, her character totally disappears from the movie again.  No doubt due to the fact that this story originated as a short film, but I felt that nothing much really happens in the film.  It felt like there was a lot of padding and I don’t think the story was fleshed out enough to sustain a feature length running time.  Oh and any time a Ouija board comes out in a horror film, you are going to lose me. 

What I did like about “The Pact” was the strong visual style (surprised?).  I admit that I am a sucker for steadicam shots gliding through houses and this film has plenty but I also felt that the whole production design of the house was beautiful too.  The wallpaper chosen for the interiors was just spot on.  McCarthy also comes up with a number of visual flourishes throughout the film that keeps it interesting to watch including an amazing “bullet time” sequence that occurs in one of Annie’s dreams.  It is a stunning moment (probably my highlight of the film) and one of the more creepier ones too.

Performances are a bit hit or miss with Caity Lotz giving a great and intense performance as Annie, while Casper Van Dien struggles with his role of the cop.  He just does not give any weight to the role and you can actually see him “acting”.  To be fair, Van Dien has never been much of an actor before and while he just passes here, it is safe to say that he will not be accepting any awards for his role.

“The Pact” is a very ambiguous film (deliberately so) as to what is really going on, which I do not think works to this film’s favour at least on the initial viewing.  However once the audience is made aware of the big reveal of the film, I think “The Pact” would benefit from a second viewing and would work in a completely different capacity and could possibly be a more positive experience.  In regards to the actual pact of the title, this is one of the more ambiguous things in the film as it is never once explained what it is, although clues are littered throughout the film that the audience should be able to piece together to work out just what it may be.

While I did find “The Pact” to ultimately be a disappointment, it is obvious that director Nicholas McCarthy has a load of talent and I look forward to future films from him.  It must be said that while I didn’t find “The Pact” to be a particularly creepy and scary experience, my wife surely did.  For the majority of the film she watched through closed eyes and was terrified throughout the whole thing and when the big reveal occurred, I thought she was going to jump through the roof.  My wife is not a fan of horror movies at all but since watching “The Pact” she has not stopped talking about it to friends and dissecting each little scene to work out every bit of meaning to it all.  All this talking about it continues to creep her out, so the film definitely does work, it just didn’t work on me.

3 Stars.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Fans of Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia are in for a treat this year, as he has followed up his wild and crazy film from last year, “The Last Circus”, with this year’s “As Luck Would Have It”.  It is such a rare treat to have two new films from this amazingly inventive director in two consecutive years.  Compared to the absolute insanity and anything-can-happen mantra of his previous film, “As Luck Would Have It” is a much more subdued and controlled effort from de la Iglesia, and as such, is arguably his most accessible film in years.

The film is about family man named Roberto, who at one time was a legend in the marketing and advertising world after coming up with his catchy and multi-million dollar making slogan “La chispa de la vida” (which means “the spark of life”) that he came up with for Coca Cola.  Unfortunately Roberto has fallen on hard times due to the European economic crisis and hasn’t worked for years.  He is months away from becoming bankrupt and losing it all, a fact that he keeps hidden from his beautiful wife Luisa, and as a last ditch effort he goes to an old friend who is still in the industry and basically begs for a job.  However now that he is no longer hot property, his friends at the advertising company want nothing to do with him, and Roberto is humiliated.

In an attempt to cheer himself up, he heads to the hotel where he and his wife shared their honeymoon together.  He plans to have a romantic weekend with the love of his life by booking the same room, but such is his luck that when he arrives at the location of the hotel he finds that it is no longer there, and that it has been replaced with a museum.  In fact, under the site where the hotel originally sat, a massive archeological discovery has been made, as they have found an old Roman amphitheatre still largely in good condition.  Roberto ends up wondering into a press conference being held about the discovery and while trying to find his way out ends up in a part of the museum still under construction.  A security guard startles Roberto and he stumbles, falling from a great height and impaling his head, upon impact, onto an iron rod.  Although he survives the fall and is even able to move all of his limbs, he is still unable to move due to how far the rod is embedded into his skull (and possibly his brain).  Soon the attention of all of the reporters is no longer on the museum but rather on Roberto and his amazing survival.  Suddenly a man who only hours earlier no-one had the time of day for, now has the attention of the entire nation.  Immediately advertisers, television shows and even movie producers all start calling, and Roberto realizes he is in the box seat to rid himself of all his debts and to provide for his family’s future.

“As Luck Would Have It” is a biting satire of the world today as it examines just how far big corporations are prepared to go in an attempt to make money at the expense of an individual.  It also looks at current media saturation and how we all seem to get something out of witnessing another person’s misery or pain.  The exploitation of Roberto would be quite sickening except that he is complicit in it all, in an attempt to provide for his family a better future.  Being in the advertising world, he knows how much his pain is worth and he goes about setting the price.  He hires an agent immediately who starts the ball rolling with small stuff like product placement (advertisers get their product to be placed near Roberto’s body) until they decide to go big an offer an exclusive interview with one of Spain’s huge hotshot talk show hosts for massive money.  It is during the negotiations here that we are witness to one of the most disgusting elements of the film, when the hosts says that he will pay for the exclusive if it can be guaranteed that Roberto will die on camera.  His reasoning for this is that a tragedy always rates better than a feel good story.  He explains this by mentioning that the reason no one remembers the Chilean miners anymore is because they all survived.  This is quite a biting section of dialogue but sadly it also rings true.  It is obvious that no one really cares about the “man” at the heart of the story, it is the story itself that is all that matters.  However like I said, Roberto is fully aware of all this and as such slants everything towards his family benefit.

“As Luck Would Have It” is unique in the entire canon of de la Iglesia’s films because this is the first time that he has no writing credit at all on one of his films.  I suspect that this is the main reason for the quick turnaround from “The Last Circus” to “As Luck Would Have It” as the script would’ve been ready to film straight away.  This time the script is credited to Randy Feldman who was amazingly the writer of “Tango & Cash” many moons ago, as well as the Van Damme vehicle “Nowhere To Run”.  Since then he appears to have done basically a few television episodes and that is it, so I am not sure if this was an old script lying around that de la Iglesia has just come across.  It appears that it was originally written in English and translated later into Spanish, but it seems perfect for de la Iglesia’s sensibilities, who is a director who always loves to add comedy (even of the blackest variety) into his films.  While the film does make some good points about today’s society, it almost feels as though it is too safe.  I felt it should’ve gone darker and maybe even more towards the absurd.  Let’s face it, Alex de la Iglesia is a master of the absurd and we all love it when he takes us to these places, but unfortunately he isn’t able to here and as a result the film does not soar like I wish it would.  De la Iglesia is a visual genius, but he is hampered here by the fact that his main character is unable to move, so we are not treated to as many visual flourishes as we would expect from a de la Iglesia film.  Still the few that he does give us are very nice (I very much liked a shot from under Roberto that is near the end of the film).

The performances from the main actors are what really keep the viewer engaged in the story of “As Luck Would Have It”.  Apparently Jose Mota, who plays Roberto, is actually a comic and this is his first starring role in any film.  He does a marvelous job in the role and brings a real heart to it.  Although his situation is absurd he plays Roberto straight, there is no winking at the camera or anything like that, to him the situation is as real as it gets – he has a rod in his head and in all likeliness he will not survive the night.  You really feel for him in the beginning as he feels like a failure who is letting down his family.  The way Mota holds himself is important as he is slouched over, tired looking and does not exude the confidence needed in the industry he was once employed in.  However we see this confidence returning as he begins to provide for his family while impaled.  Because Mota is stationary the majority of the performance is done through the eyes and he is really powerful here.  It seems strange casting a comedian to play a very still part, but casting against type has worked incredibly well for de la Iglesia here.

The real standout in the film, though, is Salma Hayek as Roberto’s wife, Luisa.  It must have been a real coup for de la Iglesia to snag this high profile Hollywood actress for his film.  This is the first time I remember seeing Salma in anything where she speaks her native tongue (although I stand to be corrected) and she really is powerful in it.  Her role is the heart of the film because Luisa is torn between letting her husband’s pain (and her family’s) to be exploited because she knows that as disgusting as it is, it is making Roberto feel like he is again providing for his family which she knows he needs.  Still she is repulsed by the vulture like media presence and only offers an exclusive interview with a young female journalist who had the decency to turn her camera off after witnessing a particularly private moment between the doomed husband and his wife.  The early scenes between Roberto and Luisa when he is getting ready for his job interview are also great and Hayek is really bubbly and vibrant in these scenes as a wife who still believes in her husband during these difficult times.  She expresses a huge positive energy trying to get him up for the interview, and Hayek is just so charismatic here.  It is obvious she loves this man through and through, and I thought the chemistry between the two of them was very realistic.

The other star of the film is Carolina Bang who plays the role of the reporter who Luisa gives the exclusive to.  Bang played the main female role in de la Iglesia’s previous film “The Last Circus” and it was good to see him working with her again in a much different role.  I was very impressed by her performance here because while I was aware of her incredible good looks, I felt her work could have been stronger in the previous film.  Here though she comes across as very intelligent and as a woman who has a lot of heart and importantly a conscience which appears rare within the media.  Again she is gorgeous to look at, but not in an overtly sexual way like in “The Last Circus”.  I’ve got to say I really loved her in “As Luck Would Have It”.

The Spanish title of the film is actually the phrase that Roberto came up with for Coca Cola, “La Chispa de la Vida”, which means “the spark of life” and is apparently the real slogan Coca Cola uses in Spain.  Personally I feel that this is a much better title than the English one because while it also has relevance to the actual plot of the film, it is much closer to the themes of the film.  For Roberto, the spark of his life is his family and he does everything for them in this film.  Due to the nature of the film itself, de la Iglesia was restricted to very few locations in the film, but the Roman amphitheatre is a perfect spot for the majority of the film, as it is like a coliseum with the media gathered around watching a blood sport put on for them (ie. They are waiting for Roberto to die to make their story more grand).

Overall, while I did enjoy de la Iglesia’s latest effort, I did feel that it was a little more generic than I am used to from this director.  I wanted it to go darker with the comedy and for it to have a little more bite than it ended up having.  Sadly due to the nature of the story, de la Iglesia’s visual flourishes were sadly absent but the performances more than made up for it.  Again, I will state that I did like “As Luck Would Have It” but there was a feeling at the end of the film that was kind of like “Well… what?”.  It didn’t shine like I wanted it to, but I would happily watch it again.  For fans of the Spanish director it may come as a disappointment especially after the insanity of “The Last Circus”, but I certainly do not think it is as bad as his “The Oxford Murders”.

3 Stars.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


“Dark Shadows” is the eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp and the combination that once regularly produced cinematic gold together, has recently started to look tired and uninspired.  With the exception of the absolute masterpiece that is “Sweeney Todd”, the recent pairings of Burton and Depp have failed to ignite the screen like they once did.  Films such as “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” and “Alice In Wonderland” do not hold a candle to classics like “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood”, or even “Sleepy Hollow”.  Even “The Corpse Bride”, which is a film I admittedly enjoyed, fails to have the magic of Burton’s films previous.  So will their latest collaboration, an adaptation of a long running vampire soap opera of the same name, continue this downward spiral or will it regain some of the lost magic?

Moving from England to America, young Barnabas Collins follows his mother and father who come to the new world to start a fishing business in Maine.  By the time Barnabas has grown up, the business has became so successful that the port town is named after the family, “Collinsport”, and the family’s wealth has afforded them the opportunity to build a massive mansion named “Collinswood”.  During this time, Barnabas meets the love of his life, Josette, and the two plan to marry.  However this plan is soon thwarted by Angelique, a young maid who Barnabas once had a brief affair with and who also, unbeknownst to him, is a witch.  After being spurred by the news of the upcoming nuptials, Angelique places a curse upon the whole Collins family.  She then goes about killing Barnabas’s parents and makes Josette throw herself off of a cliff to her death.  To ensure Barnabas’s suffering is eternal, the witch then turns the grieving man into a vampire and has him encased in a coffin that is to stay buried for the next 200 years.

When his coffin is finally discovered and excavated, the year is 1972, and the world is a completely different place from the one Barnabas was forcibly removed from.  After feeding on the local townsfolk, Barnabas sets out to find his fishing business almost bankrupt, and his fabulous mansion home, Collinswood, more or less in ruins.  He enters the mansion and discovers that some of his kin have still survived.  Living in the house is the matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, her daughter Carolyn, Elizabeth’s brother Roger and his son David, as well as David’s live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman.  The family has also just hired a governess for David named Victoria, who has just moved into the mansion and is also the spitting image of Barnabas’s lost love Josette.  Finally, the last person living on the premises is the always drunk caretaker Willie.  Barnabas explains to his family just who he is and that he plans to bring Collinsport back to the glory days it once knew, while restoring Collinswood back to its original beauty.  This activity soon reaches the awareness of Angelique, who still lives, and upon learning that Barnabas has risen from the grave, she decides to rid him and his family of this earth once and for all.

 Very early on during the development of this film, alarm bells started ringing in regards to whether or not the film would work.  In early interviews, Burton himself explained that the tone of the film was going to be very tricky and he was not sure whether or not he could make it successful.  This sounded like an artist who didn’t have a complete vision of what he wanted in his head, or if he did, was doubting his vision which gave me a reason to be concerned.  However Burton has appeared to be prophetic about the tone, as it was clearly something that the marketing people have struggled with.  For the record I believe that “Dark Shadows” has been very poorly marketed with both the posters and especially the trailer not representing the true tone of the finished product.  In fact it was because of the trailer that I thought that this film was headed to be a disaster, as it was sold as a “fish out of water” comedy, and while that is certainly a part of the film, it really only takes up a minor part of the film’s running time.  The film just isn’t as jokey as the trailer made it out to be, and while I wouldn’t call the film dark by any stretch, the tone isn’t as light as the trailer suggested.  Instead the film works more like the soap opera it is based, with big melodramatic moments filled with suspense, action and yes, laughs.

While the film is loaded with characters, the main thrust of the story has to do with the dark love affair between Barnabas and Angelique, and as such these characters dominate the majority of the screen time.  Johnny Depp is in top form as Barnabas Collins and he once again proves just how great a physical actor he is, giving his vampire character a very distinctive walk, as well as being very expressive with his claw like hands.  I really enjoyed his performance a lot (it recalls other great vampire characters from classics such as the 1931 version of “Dracula” and the silent “Nosferatu”), as he didn’t go as campy with the role as I feared he might, he actually keeps Barnabas quite grounded.  In fact the only problem I had with the Barnabas character was that sometimes the dark make-up that defined his gaunt cheekbones were a bit overdone, especially during scenes of daylight.  While all of the performances within the film are slightly heightened above reality, I really enjoyed some of Depp’s more grandeur soap-opera like line readings (“And…fight…I…shall!”).  Eva Green is luminous as always, she is just a stunning woman to look at, and Burton gives her every opportunity to look gorgeous.  Unfortunately she does not command the screen as well as Depp and as such the chemistry between the two feels far too forced.  Of all the characters, Angelique is played a little too big, and feels a bit over the top at times.  What I did love about the Angelique character was her “broken doll” appearance towards the end of the film.  It is so well done and for me was the visual highlight of the film.

The rest of the cast all handled their roles admirably although some suffer due to the limited screen time of their characters.  Chloe Moretz as Carolyn probably suffers the most and she is almost wasted here in a thankless role.  She has proven herself as a very capable actress in the past (with roles in “Hugo” and especially “Let Me In”), but I believe this may be the worst performance that I have seen her give.  However, the script doesn’t give her much to do.  It was fantastic to finally see Michelle Pfeiffer in another Tim Burton film, because the last time she gave us her fantastic rendition of Catwoman in “Batman Returns”.  While her turn in “Dark Shadows” may not infect the world of pop culture like her Catwoman did, she still gives a great and strong performance as Elizabeth.  She is still as gorgeous as ever and seeing her brandishing a shotgun in the finale was super cool.  Although he had limited work to do in the film, I really liked Jonny Lee Miller’s turn as the slimy and shady Roger, he always impressed when he was on screen.  As usual Helena Bonham Carter gives an odd but rewarding performance as the doctor who may have ulterior motives, but again doesn’t have a load of screen time.  Australian actress Bella Heathcote is great in the dual roles of Josette and Victoria but her character seems to do a disappearing act more than any of the others in the film.  While she has a fair amount of screen time, there are large chunks of the film where her character is just missing, and she only seems to re-emerge when her character can service the plot.  However when she is on screen she displays a charming presence and she has good chemistry with Johnny Depp too.  

The actors actually do a great job with what they have been given which sadly is not much.  Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay is definitely the weak point of the film.  While the dialogue gets a pass mark, it is the structure of the film that needed work.  Things seem to happen just out of the blue in this film with no foreshadowing, especially in the mad finale.  Also as I mentioned earlier, characters have a habit of coming and going, showing up when they can move the plot forward only to disappear again.  The other strange thing in “Dark Shadows” is the weird sexual perversion to it.  Now I have not seen the soap opera that the film is based on, so am not sure whether it existed their previous, but it is certainly unique to any Tim Burton film that I have seen (and I have seen them all), so I am attributing it Grahame-Smith’s script.  From this comes one of the most unbelievable and out-of-place fellatio scenes I have ever seen.  Granted the scene is played for laughs, but “Dark Shadows” was not the film for the scene, it is terrible and needed to be trimmed from the final film.

Typical for a Tim Burton film, “Dark Shadows” looks wonderful.  The gothic setting just suits his visual style to a “T” and in this regard he does not disappoint.  After the visual green screen mess of “Alice In Wonderland” it was great seeing the Burton style in full effect once again.  The opening pre-credits scene is classic Burton and is when the film is at its darkest, and it is a shame that once the film switches to 1972 that darkness is then lost.  The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is outstanding (he followed this project by shooting the new Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and a special mention must go to the costume designer Colleen Atwood.  Truthfully this is a not an aspect I notice a hell of a lot (except if it is bad) when I watch films, but her work here is so grand it is impossible to ignore.

After re-reading this review I have realized that it is not easy to work out what I actually thought of “Dark Shadows”, and well, I ended up having a really great time with it.  I thought the film was a lot of fun, I know that it has its flaws, but the film is certainly not a bad film let alone the disaster I was expecting it to be.  I absolutely loved the crazy finale (which I know a lot of critics despise) and never once felt the running time passing, which is always a good sign.  While it is not as good as the early Burton / Depp collaborations (it doesn’t come close to “Sweeney Todd” either), it is much better than “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” and the train wreck that is “Alice in Wonderland”. 

While I thoroughly enjoyed “Dark Shadows” (and look forward to watching it again soon), I do hope that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp separate for a while and recharge their creative batteries.  Burton’s next film is the stop-motion “Frankenweenie” which Depp is not involved in, with the live action follow up rumored to be the sequel to his 1988 classic “Bettlejuice” (although sadly Grahame-Smith is scheduled to be scripting that too), so it may indeed by awhile until we see another collaboration between the two.  In any case, I love the latest work from this talented pairing, flaws and all.

 3.5 Stars. 

Friday, May 18, 2012


Even though I am a fan of Joss Whedon (I was a big fan of “Buffy”), my anticipation for his “Avengers” film was strangely non-existent.  Truthfully I am not sure why that was, maybe I am just burnt out by the constant barrage of superhero movies that seem to be forced on us these days.  Every week there appears to be a new one and the good ones are few and far between.  Even though I usually do end up seeing these films in the long run, I no longer anticipate them.  In the case of “The Avengers” it had an even harder task to catch my eye because even when I was collecting comics I was never into “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”.  It wasn’t until the strong word of mouth regarding the film’s excellence started to hit that I decided to take a trip to the cinema to check it out.

The plot of the film is all kinds of silly as disgraced god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) heads to Earth to steal the all-powerful Tesseract (Hydra’s secret weapon that is found at the end of “Captain America”) to help him open a portal to another dimension where he plans to let an alien race invade and destroy the Earth as revenge against his brother Thor.  The threat is so mighty that one hero is not enough to save the day so Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of S.H.I.E.L.D brings together The Avengers which consists of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Even with their combined power will it be enough to thwart Loki’s insidious plan?

After reading nothing but positive reviews and hearing nothing but good things in regards to “The Avengers”, you can imagine my surprise when I found the first 30-45 minutes of the film to be terrible and incredibly plodding.  It is within this time that the team is put together as we go from one character to the next as each is convinced to join, but it is all so boring.  It doesn’t feel cohesive at all, rather it is like we are watching short films on each character, but it just takes the film too long to get going.  In fact not to harp on the point but I actually found these scenes to actually be embarrassing.

However once the team is assembled the film improves dramatically and Whedon hits his strides.  He has always been known for his creative dialogue and the verbal exchanges he creates between these super-heroes as their egos are challenged are often very funny as the group bickers, taunts and ribs one another.  Robert Downey Jr. has a field day in these scenes particularly when he appears to be trying to set off Dr. Banner’s transformation into The Hulk.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about “The Avengers” was that Whedon infused the film with a fun tone and atmosphere.  Too often these days comic book movies tend to be skewed towards the dark and serious but Whedon remembers that these stories are meant to be entertaining and fun, and an escape from the real world.  As such, the film never takes itself too seriously which works in its favour.

With a huge roster of characters you would think that some of them would be short-changed but Whedon does an exceptional job of giving each of them their own moments.  Without a doubt, Thor gets the best line in the film with regards to his “adopted” brother but they all get a moment to shine.  The only character who doesn’t seem to fit is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye .  While I like Renner as an actor, he may be a little too intense for the world that Whedon has created here, and he does seem a little off, and also has the least to do.

Having the flamboyant and charismatic Robert Downey Jr. in the cast you would assume that this would be Iron Man’s movie, but surprisingly it is Mark Ruffalo’s rendition of The Hulk (he is the third actor to play the role now in three tries) that steals the picture.  I say surprisingly because Marvel has had two cracks at making individual Hulk movies and they just haven’t got it right (that said, I do love the Eric Bana / Ang Lee version), but Whedon has got it spot on here.  He knows just how to make the Hulk work, he is a character full of angst, anger and violence but he is also quite funny and The Hulk has a couple of laugh out loud moments within the film.  The first is a moment after a fight that he has been battling alongside Thor, while the other is one of the most violent yet hilarious things I’ve seen in a comic book movie towards Loki.  Both moments are very small but it is moments like these that make “The Avengers” special.  As I said, Mark Ruffalo plays the Hulk this time around and he does a fantastic job especially when he is his alter ego, Bruce Banner.  His scenes with Downey Jr. are a highlight.  Ruffalo also portrayed the character when he was The Hulk via motion capture, so Ruffalo is quite present in the performance of the Hulk as well.

Everyone else plays their roles admirably with Scarlett Johansson looking incredibly sexy as Black Window, and while Loki himself may be a bit of a limp villain, I very much liked Tom Hiddleston’s performance in the role.  I felt he was much better here than he was in the same role for “Thor”.  The only acting letdown in the film is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  I have never been a fan of Jackson’s portrayal of Fury, it has just never seemed right.  Fury was always a tough son of a bitch who was always gruff and grouchy, however Jackson portrays him so flatly that he comes across as boring and he gives the man no strength at all.

Another spot where Whedon earns top marks is during the finale when all of the action kicks in.  Although the action has an epic feel to it, Whedon has confined it basically to within one city block to make it feel more intimate.  It is only about these characters fighting against the odds and not those who will be affected if they fail.  Thankfully Whedon knows how to shoot these action scenes effectively and unlike the recent “The Hunger Games” doesn’t resort to the use of shaky cam, which shock horror, gives the audience the ability to see and understand everything that is going on.

Finally I have to say that enough is enough with the Stan Lee cameos in these Marvel films.  What used to be cool, has now become groan inducing and when his cameo appeared near the end of “The Avengers” I seriously rolled my eyes.  Give it a rest guys, that joke is done!

Overall with the exception of the terrible opening 45 minutes, I found Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” to be a superior superhero film.  While it still hasn’t ousted “Spiderman 2” as my favourite comic book movie, it was very good indeed.  The surprising hilarity of The Hulk stole the film for me and I was very impressed (and thankful) for the overall fun tone of the film.  While I still think that “The Avengers” is overrated, it is still an easy recommendation.

3.5 Stars.