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Box Office Preview: ‘Avengers’ and Something About a Hotel


The Avengers

As I discussed over at Real Men Read Comics, Marvel has been building towards this one for a long time. After a long wait and perhaps too many attempts to connect the dots, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the gang are coming together on the big screen.

I’ve actually got something nice to say about a new release, maybe even a few nice things. This is groundbreaking territory.

“The Avengers” was written and directed by Joss Whedon. This is the dude who brought us “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly.” If you don’t know what “Firefly” is, you need to find out. It’s on Netflix instant, so go on, get. I’ll even give you the link. Like his projects, Whedon has built up quite the cult following over the years. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, he co-wrote “Toy Story,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar. That’s right folks, motherfucking “Toy Story.”

“The Avengers” has all most of the stars of the individual films back in their roles. We’ve got Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Captain America, and most importantly, Robert Downey Jr. in his perfectly sardonic portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man. Now, Mark Ruffalo may have replaced Eric Bana, er, Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, but that’s probably a good thing. If you’re sick of all these different Bruce Banners flying your way, don’t worry, Ruffalo recently signed a six-picture deal to play The Hulk.

Let’s not forget about the supporting cast, rounding out the team are Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. But wait, there’s more, Tom Hiddleston will reprise his role from “Thor” as Loki, the film’s main villain. Hiddleston also played a brilliant F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris.”

One of the ways you know a superhero movie, is great is when the dialogue is better than the action sequences. This is what we got in “Iron Man,” when oftentimes Tony Stark was more gripping with his super suit off than on. You should expect no less from Whedon, and according to Bullz-eye’s David Medsker, the Joss has delievered:

Once Whedon gets the cast in the same room and gives them the chance to interact as people rather than superheroes, the movie blossoms in a strangely wonderful way, one where it’s easy to wish that they would keep talking, rather than ramping up for the butt-kicking that is just around the corner. Indeed, until the climactic battle sequence, the action plays second fiddle to the talking, and as odd as that sounds for a superhero movie, it’s the right call.

If all this wasn’t enough, “The Avengers” has been certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, sitting at a 93 on the Tomatometer. For once, I’m actually excited.


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The only other film getting a wide release this weekend is “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Believe it or not, John Madden was actually able to direct a film that doesn’t star Brett Favre. Hold on. I’m getting word that it’s a different John Madden, the “Shakespeare in Love” John Madden. Oh, well things make more sense now.

Kidding aside, this is a film about a group of British seniors, including Academy Award-winners Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who decide to “outsource” their retirement to cheaper and seemingly exotic India. When they get there, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t look quite as it did in the brochures so both hilarity and drama ensue. The film also stars Penelope Winton, whose interactions with Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey” are fantastic, so hopefully we get some of that here.

There’s a reason no other movies are being released this weekend, studios were scared of “The Avengers,” and rightly so. But it’s pretty clear that “Hotel” is “The Avengers’” antithesis, and so too is its target audience. That said, with its award-winning cast and 78 rating on the Tomatometer, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” seems to be well worth seeing in its own right.

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Greetings to the New Series: “Terriers”

One hates to fall back on the hoary old “if you looked up such-and-such in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of (INSERT NAME HERE)” cliche if it can possibly be helped, so rather than bringing up the topic of character actors and plugging the name “Donal Logue” between the parentheses, can we at least agree that there are precious few individuals who are so readily identified as “that guy who was in that thing we watched that time”?

I mean, seriously, God love you, Donal, but it takes a real character actor to be able to headline two seriously funny sitcoms (“Grounded for Life” and “The Knights of Prosperity”), one of which ran for five freaking seasons (that’d be the former), and still be known as “that guy who was in that thing we watched that one time.”

Still, my fingers are crossed that Logue’s latest series, FX’s “Terriers,” will be the one that finally cements his name in the collective consciousness of today’s TV viewers…and, for that matter, let’s hope it also helps out his co-star, Michael Raymond-James, because these two guys have got some great chemistry going on. Fortunately, with a trio of executive producers that includes Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”), Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven”), and Tim Minear (“Angel,” “Firefly,” and “Dollhouse,” as well as several series not created by Joss Whedon, including “Wonderfalls”), it was always a given that “Terriers” would capture the attention of the critics, and by virtue of being on FX, the chances of the show surviving long enough to build a decent-sized audience are pretty solid.

Oh, and did we mention that it’s also really, really good?

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Joss Whedon is (probably) the Avengers’ master now

I personally won’t be utterly sure it’s real until the man himself writes about it over at Whedonesque, but news today came via both Mike Fleming and (unlinkable/unreadable w/o subscription) Variety that mega-culty writer-producer-director Joss Whedon will be directing “The Avengers” as well as reworking the screenplay already written by Zak Penn.

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It’s important to note that no one’s saying it’s yet a 100% done deal, just that Whedon and Marvel Studios are in “final negotiations.” I imagine that could mean anything from lawyerly due diligence, to the movieland equivalent of leaving a real estate transaction in escrow, to quibbling over whether craft services on the film will provide marshmallows along with the hot chocolate. Still, there is certainly some truth to the story, and not only because Fleming and Variety are highly reliable sources, but also that, if there were not, Whedon himself would almost certainly have piped up about it by now. He’s known for staying in touch with his fans and has quickly squelched many a baseless, “squee!”-generating rumor.

As a confessed Whedonite, I’m sure I’m biased, but I love this idea. When I first got seriously hooked on Whedon’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” TV series, it was because I felt something of the same sense of involvement in the characters and backstory I had when I had become involved in the often soapy plot complications of Silver Age Marvel comics. When Whedon cites Charles Dickens and Stan Lee as his two favorite authors, it makes perfect sense to me.

More objectively, I’m not really that surprised that Marvel choose him and I think he’s a shrewd pick from their point of view. Some commenters have argued that Whedon is not an experienced action film-maker. I don’t think they’ve been paying attention. He’s supervised four action-heavy television series (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” and “Dollhouse“) and has directed one very strong action-packed movie space opera (“Serenity“) complete with space-car chases, martial arts, and even a bit of sword play mixed with down-and-dirty street fighting. I think he’s got that ground covered.

Joss WhedonMoreover, he brought the film in with what is, by current standards, an impossibly tiny budget for a movie with copious effects and action ($40 million) and, in my book at least, he did so with plenty of cinematic style. That has to please the notoriously tight-fisted Marvel Studio heads and probably puts them somewhat in mind of their other “risky” choice of “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, who prior to making “Zathura” had pretty much no experience with action or effects. More or less like “Serenity,” that film garnered good reviews but did kind of badly at the box office.  At $65 million, it was a somewhat higher budgeted box office disappointment, however.

“Serenity” fared poorly because it was a based on a TV show (“Firefly”) that most people had never seen, and was cursed with a premise and background that was very difficult to explain. Moreover, the title reminded people of very non-action-movie things like meditation, spas, and adult diapers. Worse, Universal was not really prepared to risk extra money on a months-long publicity campaign to try and bring the audience up to speed on what Whedon’s “verse” was all about. “”The Avengers” will not have that problem. It’s about a group of superheros doing superheroic stuff together. People will get it.

As a fan, I do have one concern — well, not a concern, but more a point of curiosity. Whedon has had, for the most part, rather fabulous luck with acting ensembles comprised mostly of unknowns, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do with actual superstars like Robert Downey, Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson. This is, however, also the first time he’s not chosen his own cast but been given a ready-made ensemble, and it’s not like he can really make any major changes if he’s not happy with the way things are jelling. It’s just one of many aspects of this production that should be interesting to follow.

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The League of Quality Superhero Animation plugs “Crisis on Two Earths” at Paley Center

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It’s an old story. You’re a superhero minding your own business and then you bump into someone who looks very familiar but, well, something’s just not right. Gee whiz but this person looks a lot like you and is even wearing similar clothes, but then you notice your new acquaintance looks like he or she is made from rocks, uses terrible grammar and does everything the opposite of you. (“Me want to not save world!”) Or the newcomer looks like one of your deadliest enemies, but turns out to be no Bizaaro, but as heroic as you are. What’s a superhero to do?

It’s an old superhero comic story that has yet to find its way into a big-time costumed-hero flicks — but at least it’s finally been used in a solidly entertaining and often slyly funny direct-to-DVD animated production. Rated a mild PG-13 for non-deadly “action violence,” Warner Home Video’s “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” shows us the fall-out of an alternate universe where the equivalents of our most famed superheros are essentially costumed Mafioso, while a bald guy named Luthor and a joker named the Jester vainly fight the power of organized caped crime.

When the alternate Luthor (Chris Noth) manages a reality jump into the original DC Comics Universe, he enlists the aid of  most of the Justice League. And so, Superman (Mark Harmon), Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall), and a less than cooperative Batman (William Baldwin), become involved in a desperate quest to free Good Luthor’s universe from super-powered criminal domination by the vicious Crime Syndicate and it’s Jersey-thug-like leader, Ultraman (Brian Bloom) — and also to stave off the possible destruction of all existence by an off-his-evil meds Dark Knight of the Soul, Owlman (James Woods), and his only slightly more sane GF, Super Woman (Gina Torres).

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The 72 minute direct-to-video feature was premiered at both of the coastal outlets of the Paley Center, and I attended the one located on Earth Prime’s Beverly Hills. Us members of the local geek press were allowed to commune with members of the cast and crew and, in my case, that started with the extremely busy animation casting and voice director, Andrea Romano. The loquacious performer and voice director, whose work includes everything from “Animaniacs” to “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Ben Ten,” is held in as high esteem by super-animation fans as any actor, writer, or director. Her work on DC superhero projects goes back to the early nineties and “Batman: The Animated Series,” which revolutionized superhero cartoons with quality writing from creators like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, animation, and, thanks to her efforts, acting.

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TV in the 2000s: The Decade in Whedonism – 10 Small Screen Masterpieces from Joss Whedon

Like an awful lot of film and TV geeks, and just plain geeks, I’m a pretty big Joss Whedon fan. In fact, my devotion to his unique blend of fantasy and science fiction melodrama, sometimes arch old-school movie-style witty dialogue blended with Marvel comics repartee, strong characterization, and often somewhat silly plots has at times gotten almost embarrassing. A few years back some of my very adult friends were suggesting in concerned tones that I should really marry the man if I love him so much.

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More recently, I thought my fandom was under relative control. But now, I’ve been asked my opinion on the ten best examples of small-screen work in this decade from the creator and guiding force of “Angel,” “Firefly,” the already canceled “Dollhouse,” and, of course, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” I only have to be thankful for the fact that first four seasons of “Buffy,” which contain most of that show’s greatest episodes, are disqualified because they appeared on TV sets before 2000. We take our mercies where we find them. (And, yes, if you’re about to catch up with these on DVD, there are a fair number of spoilers below for the various series, though I’ve tried to keep a few secrets.) One word of warning: my relative ranking of these shows is a matter of mood and borders on the random. In other words — don’t hold me to these choices!

Out of competition:

BTVS, “The Body” (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) – This episode usually ranks extremely high when people make these kind of lists. Entertainment Weekly named it as pretty much the best thing Joss Whedon has ever done and maybe the best TV thing ever. The truth of the matter is that, yes, the episode where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) discovers the already cold body of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, a wonderful asset to the show for the five previous years), dead from an entirely natural brain tumor, was probably one of the most remarkable episodes of television ever shown, and probably the only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the essence of what it feels like when someone dies unexpectedly. The problem was, I didn’t find it depressing; I found it real. I didn’t feel any more like repeating the experience than I would the death of an actual loved one.

Whedon – who wrote and directed the episode himself – deserves all the credit in the world for the brave choices he made, including shooting the episode in close to “real time” and not using any music. If I have one complaint with Whedon, it’s his tendency to close emotional episodes with, dare I say it, somewhat drippy montages. His choice to eliminate music from the kind of “very special” show where other creators would lay in with three or four montages of Joyce frolicking in the woods or what have you, shows Whedon is, at heart, an outstanding filmmaker. I’ve never had a problem with his much-noted tendency to kill off sympathetic and/or popular characters. It might anger some fans, but especially if you’re dealing with inherently violent material, there’s something morally wrong about not dealing with the fact that good people are just as mortal as bad people. Still, I don’t enjoy watching this episode. If this were a movie, maybe I’d be more in awe or eager for profundity. However, if I’m going to be honest, I can’t call “The Body” a favorite and I can’t be sure it’s one of the “best.”

#10, Shiny Happy People (“Angel”) – Fans of the spin-off about Buffy’s ex, the vampire-with-a-soul detective (David Boreanaz), and various assembled demon-hunters and occasionally friendly demons, will be scratching their heads at this choice. It’s an unpopular episode from a widely and justly derided storyline involving a very weird affair between Angel’s unbalanced super-powered teenage son from another dimension, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser, now of “Mad Men“), and a suddenly evil Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), a former high school mean girl turned lovably complex grown-up foil for her vampire boss. And, yeah, it was a little freaky for Cordy to give birth to a fully grown creature called Jasmine.

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However, as played by the wondrous Gina Torres of the then recently-canceled “Firefly,” Jasmine was freaky in a good way. A being whose god-like ability to create an instant sense of peace, happiness, and complete obedience, is somewhat set off by the fact that she’s actually a deformed and decaying, if not entirely evil, monster who must consume people to live, she was every charismatic leader and every great screen beauty rolled into one monstrous ball. More than anything else, “Shiny Happy People” reminded me of Don Siegel’s 1956 film verson of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It was another believable demonstration of how we humans are only too willing to surrender our our humanity to the first apparently completely beauteous and 100% wise being who comes along. You know, like Oprah, only less powerful.

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