Robert Downey jr

The Avengers (2012)

The first three chapters out of the Marvel Studios stable were, it’s fair to say, a mixed bag. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was a solid affair that tried to ground Tony Stark firmly in reality, only for it all to blow up in his face with the ill-judged, ill-paced, ill-Mickey Rourke sequel that was nothing more than a PowerPoint about daddy issues. The Incredible Hulk tried to put the comic back into comic book movie after Ang Lee’s previous effort, Hulk. Instead, powered by Edward Norton’s self-importance, it lost its way in the second half and became as involving as a film of two CGI characters beating the shit out of each could be.

If Marvel Studios took stock of all this is up for debate, but what can be agreed on is their next two efforts, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, brought a lot more to table. Tighter pacing, more experimentation (Go on, who had money on Kenneth Branagh directing Thor?) and more importantly a genuine sense of fun that was lost in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. They stopped being about simply pleasing the whims of the fanboy and more about being ensuring that everyone had a good time. Which brings us bang up to date with The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon and starring pretty much everyone from the last five Marvel movies with the Ted Norton sized hole being filled in by Mark Ruffalo.

So, to summarise; Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) half brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has returned from his exile and he’s bringing an army of aliens intent on taking over the planet Earth. Only the Avengers can stop them. Except the Avengers don’t exist yet. Yep, despite the seemingly never-ending appearances in other people’s films, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) hasn’t actually got round to gathering everyone up due to his funding being pulled. So he spends part of the first act trying to re-convince people to join his gang with a little help from ex-soviet spy, Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) and uber-archer, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And when I say ‘part of’, I mean it. Joss Whedon has made it very clear that the backbone of his film is the clash of characters that comes from Marvel’s rosta, so it’s no surprise we speed through getting the band back together.

When everyone is present and correct, Whedon’s script ensures that the one-liners fly as fast and as hard as the fists. Like Whedon’s previous work, it’s the dialogue that shines through. From the culture clash between Captain America (Chris Evans) vs Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr) right down through the almost Shakespearean verbal sparring between Loki and Thor to the grunting match between Thor and Hulk, it all just works. However, it’s not all about the words is it? You came to see a rock show, not some Poet Laureate, I know. And be assured that Whedon delivers on that front too. From the annihilation of Manhattan Island to the downing of a village sized airship, Whedon’s direction is confident with a healthy dash of experimentation. On top this, we have a number of superhero fights that are sure to plague the forums for years to come. With this and 2005’s Serenity, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the more visually sober Much Ado About Nothing later this year.

With so many characters on-screen, there is always the danger that some of Earth’s mightiest are going to be MIA. And unfortunately this does happen. Jeremy Renner seems to spend most of his time appearing in a completely different film. There’s probably a few reasons why there hasn’t been a Hawkeye movie and this movie highlights them. Whilst even Scarlet Johanssen gets to do a hell of a lot more than she did in Iron Man 2 (she comes across something resembling a human being as opposed to a Tony Stark sex doll), Renner just stomps around smoldering. I would almost argue that he’s surplus to requirements if it wasn’t for Maria Hill played by Cobie Smulders, who has inherited the lion’s share of exposition dialogue; ‘What happens now Fury?’, ‘Where’s Captain America?’ etc.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark Ruffalo as the world’s worst sponsor for anger management, Dr Bruce Banner/Hulk. Ruffalo is a delight every time he’s on-screen. Compared to Eric Bana and Edward Norton’s portrayal of Banner, Ruffalo plays him less tortured soul and more man just trying really hard to be left alone. Even when he does dip his toe into melodrama and confesses all about his alter-ego, it works for him rather than against him (‘I swallowed a bullet, he spat it back out’). When he finally does lose his rag, The Hulk (voiced by 70s original Lou Ferrigno) is impossible to watch without a big, cheesy grin on your face.

In summary, The Avengers is fantastic addition to the Marvel Studio canon. Like Thor and Captain America, it reminds you that, yes, films like this can never be more than fun and explosions, but that doesn’t mean they have to be instantly forgettable (Hello Spiderman 3). If they can keep this kind of quality control, which really does mean trusting your talent to call the shots rather than forcing them into bad decisions (hello again Spiderman 3) then the thought of the forthcoming Thor 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3 and The Avengers 2 seems less depressing then it originally did.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Guy Ritchie’s original movie, Sherlock Holmes, was greeted by many a bemused person who felt that he had lynched the good name of Arthur Conan Doyle by giving us a bohemian Holmes who was an ace shot, a crack swordsman and a bare-knuckle fighter. These same people having based their opinion of Holmes solely on Basil Rathbone movies. However, it was successful  and deliberately left itself open to a sequel. Here is that sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr) is spending an inordinate amount of time trying to track down evidence that can lead to the arrest and capture of Professor Moriarty, lecturer, author and criminal mastermind. Upon meeting a fortune teller named Simzi (Noomi Rapace), Holmes begins a case that could lead not only to Moriarty, but also to saving civilisation as we know it. Not bad for a man who has taken to drinking formaldehyde.

Seemingly learning from criticisms of the last installment, Game of Shadows dispenses with the overly-complicated plot and, taking it’s cues from The Final Problem, becomes a merry chase across Europe.  Whilst I’m a big fan of the original, I was pleased to see the plot simplified as the original does fall down like a game of ker-plunk if you analyse it too closely. The sequel is not without it’s fault, an attempt to cover up a murder is is presented as ingenious, when in actual fact it seems like a colossal waste of manpower.

Downey Jnr and Jude Law, as Dr Watson, bounce off each other superbly, retaining the love/hate married couple relationship that made them a joy to watch before. Jared Hill is superb as Moriarty and, in comparison to Lord Blackwood from before, brings a believable villainy to role without having to chew the scenery. His dialogues with Holmes are excellent and you genuinely believe them to be two men who share awe and loathing of each other in equal measure. It’s a shame about Noomi Rapace then. Forever to be known as that woman from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/Played with Fire/Punched a Train, Rapace becomes nothing more than window dressing and, at best, the Holmes equivalent of a Doctor Who companion. ‘What’s this Holmes?’, ‘Why that Holmes?’, ‘Look it’s the Ice Warriors, Holmes!’ etc.

Some of Guy Ritchie’s direction does grate a little. There are so many Lock, Stock moments of quick cuts it can become a tad disorientating. His overusage of slooooooooooooowing thiiiiings dooooooown before speedingupreallyquickly does become a bit of a headache, but it’s nice to see a cheeky nod to the almost infallible Holmes-O-Vision we were introduced to in Sherlock Holmes.

After the swashbuckling finale of it’s predecessor, some fans maybe disappointed with the wordy way everything is resolved in Game of Shadows. The film quite literally waves an ending in your face, before changing gears suddenly. However, I found it to be more line in with the original stories than crossing swords on top of an incomplete Tower Bridge.

A Game of Shadows will most definitely split people down the middle. It is not a film to tax your braincells, but rather a ripping yarn. Which isn’t really all that different to Holmes canon in general if truth be told.

Good Night, And Good Luck. (2005)

In 1953, with fear of commnist infiltration at it’s height and Senator McCarthy in the middle of his famous “Witchunts” one journalist, operating in the relatively new sphere of television, decides to speak out against the misuse of the constitution against America’s own citizens.

Good Night, and Good Luck tells the story of Edward R. Murrow’s stance against McCarthy on his “See It Now” news programme on CBS. Leading to McCarthy’s censure from the senate and a victory for journalistic freedom and integrity.

Clooney directs and co-writes with Grant Hislov, the script is seriously pared down. Not an ounce of fat remains. The only thing that matters are the television shows, no character is afforded much of a backstory or even a visible family. Indeed, there is only one relationship outside of the professsional in the entire film. This focuses the action, making every scene vital to the push and thrust of the story. Only clocking in at a genius 93 minutes keeps everything fresh and doesn’t allow peoples opinions to be championed too much. The film simply tells the story of Murrow and leaves the audienct to make up their minds. Credit must go to Clooney for this.

The use of black and white is interesting. In the colour era, the use of back and white has been for a variety of reasons. In Raging Bull, it was employed to highlight how La Motta only came alive in the ring when the palette shifted to colour, the Coen’s Man Who Wasn’t There was all sharp angles and shadow making black and white necessary. Schindler’s List seemed to be monochrome to lessen the horror of the holocaust (which is bullshit) whilst The Good German was a pastiche or at least a throwback to fifties films. Good Night, and Good Luck seems to have had black and white forced upon it by the decision to use archive footage of McCarthy and his trials but it’s worked to an advantage. Set in the very early days of television, it makes perfect sense to stick to this austere method. Everything and everyone looks of that time and fits in perfectly, no mean feat when the marquee names of Clooney And Downey Jr are modern day titans of “colour” blockbusters.

Shot entirely on sound stages (there are no exteriors in the whole film) is a brave choice, keeping a fervent, claustrophobic atmosphere to the piece. The film could work on stage it’s sets are so few and minimally designed. It brings to mind a strange hybrid of Dr. Strangelove and All the President’s Men.

David Stathairn has been working his middle aged, authority figure, calm acting style for three decades and more (personal favourite-Whistler in Sneakers). He lands a peach of a role here, out Murrowing Murrow himself, His delivery of the key speeches are inflected with a quiet passion of a man believing every word he speaks and in the importance of saying them. His eyes tell the story, giving Murrow a clean conscience and a true soul in his actions. He’s ably supported by Clooney, Downey Jr, Daniels as men in suits and by Frank Langella as the owner of CBS, torn between making his network financialy viable and supporting Murrow in his crusade against paranoia and fear.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a film made about a significant period in America’s short history. It’s an important film and a worthy one, both of which are adjectives most films (rightly) seek to avoid. Here it works admirably, highlighting ethics and viewpoints which are still very much required today and the men who stand up to fight for them.