Monday, April 30, 2012

ASSEMBLING THE AVENGERS

With the release of The Avengers just around the corner (look for my review within the next few days!), I figured now would be the ideal time to look at the films that led up to this big event. I’ve just re-watched all of them, with my 9-year-old daughter Maddie at my side, so she’ll weigh in too.

Chronologically speaking, the correct order to watch the films is Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. I’ll follow that sequence here. And away we go…

Iron Man (2008)


Despite being an origin story, which always runs the risk of bogging things down in exposition and taking forever to get to the action, this movie pulls you right in.

Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic as Tony Stark—witty, charming, bursting with personality, and dead serious when he needs to be. As Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow is lovely and radiant and completely believable. Her chemistry with Downey is palpable. Jeff Bridges, in the role of Obadiah Stane, is very effective conveying false loyalty and camaraderie, and then shifting to insidious menace. Among the lead characters, Terrence Howard as James Rhodes is probably the least effective—not that he’s in any way bad, he just doesn’t make as much of an impression.

I do have some story problems with the second half, and some of Obadiah Stane’s dialogue and his motivations during the big climactic battle are a bit too hackneyed and “comic booky.”

Also, I felt that the film lacks a strong emotional core that was so present in Superman: The Movie, Batman Begins, and the first two Spider-Man movies. It’s not that director Jon Favreau and co. don't try—actually, some of the stuff between Stark and Pepper is quite good. But I didn’t feel myself get pulled emotionally into this film quite as much as I did with the ones I mention above. 

The special effects are fantastic. The humor works, for the most part. The in-jokes are very clever—and you really have to be sharp to get them all. I know I didn’t upon my first viewing! 

All in all, it’s an excellent and highly effective starting point for the Marvel Movie Universe.

MADDIE: “I guess this one is my favorite of all the Marvel movies. It was full of action and I liked all of the technology, all of the features in the suit. And it was funny. I liked the relationship between Pepper and Tony and I liked how Tony had a bond with the man who saved his life in Afghanistan, when his heart was injured at the beginning.”

Iron Man 2 (2010)


I found that this film doesn’t hold up on repeated viewings quite as well as I thought it would. The plot is a bit scattered, causing the narrative to drag in spots. Also, the motivations are a bit muddled in some areas. That said, this is a true sequel in every sense of the word. It picks up where the previous film left off and continues the story thread of Tony Stark revealing to the public that he’s Iron Man.

Probably the biggest disappointment about Iron Man 2 is that the conflict between Stark and the central villain, the vengeance-seeking Russian renegade scientist Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), doesn’t reach its full potential.  It's handled somewhat superficially, in very broad strokes, and their final showdown is a bit anti-climactic—despite great special effects.

But the cast is uniformly terrific. Downey and Paltrow are just as good as they were in the original. As James Rhodes, Don Cheadle brings more warmth, humanity, and intelligence to the table than Terrence Howard did.  

Sam Rockwell is a hoot as secondary villain Justin Hammer. He's smarmy, weaselly, and conniving—sort of a less comical version of the character that Paul Reiser played in Aliens.

As Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson has great presence and acquits herself nicely and believably. Garry Shandling is very enjoyable as Senator Stern. And Samuel L. Jackson gets more screen time as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, as does director Favreau as Stark’s bodyguard/chauffeur, Happy Hogan. In both cases, more is good.

Overall, Iron Man 2 is fun and exciting. A worthy sequel, for sure, coming close to its predecessor—but not quite managing to equal or surpass it.

MADDIE: “I thought it was a good movie, but the story was kind of hard for me to follow. My favorite part was when Tony was playing the recordings of his father and his father says that Tony is his greatest creation. I didn’t like how Tony was being out of control all the time, I thought there was a little too much of his craziness. I liked when he and Rhodey fired their hand-blasters at each other and it caused an explosion. I really liked the Black Widow a lot—my favorite part was when she took out seven guys and Happy could only take out one! I liked her martial arts moves and all of her gadgets. I thought that Ivan Vanko was kind of hard to understand because of his accent and I didn’t really get why he was out to kill Tony Stark. And I thought Justin Hammer was really pushing it when he came out on stage dancing and trying to be like Tony Stark.”

The Incredible Hulk (2008)


Certainly the most underrated of the Marvel-produced films, this gets right pretty much everything that Ang Lee got wrong in his 2003 misfire.

Basically, this film is the old Hulk TV show on steroids. And by the TV show, I mean the GOOD episodes. Like the classic two-parter in which the Hulk confronts another, far more dangerous Hulk-like creature. Or the one where he gets captured by the military. Or the one where Banner experiments on himself and ends up accidentally corrupting the “Banner” side of his personality. I don’t mean the one where Banner becomes a cab driver and gets hassled by loan sharks. Or the one where he works in New York’s garment center and gets hassled by loan sharks. Or the one where he gets involved in midget wrestling. (No, I’m not kidding about that last one). 

There’s plenty of in-jokes in this movie, tying in to both the TV series and the comics. Stan Lee, Lou Ferrigno, and even the late Bill Bixby make appearances. Even the beloved theme music from the TV series turns up, and it’s used appropriately. 

The script is solid and shows imagination and care. While he didn’t receive official credit for writing the screenplay, star Edward Norton did a very good job and should be proud of himself. The same goes for director Louis Leterrier, who shows off his knowledge of all the good stuff from the TV series, both conceptually and visually. 

Norton is perfect as Bruce Banner. At times, he seems to channel Bixby’s interpretation of the role: noble, gentle, caring, sensitive, heroic, interesting, and thoroughly sympathetic. It’s a shame he won’t reprise the role in The Avengers.

Liv Tyler delivers the goods as Betty Ross. She brings soulfulness, energy, earnestness, and sweetness to the role, and you can understand right away why Banner loves her so much—and why she has the effect on the Hulk that she does. She’s also feisty and downright explosive when the situation calls for it.

William Hurt is GREAT as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross—massive, imposing, arrogant, and willing to cross the line to achieve his goals. There’s a real look of menace, ambition, and obsession in Hurt’s eyes as he plays Ross, and he’s one of the most interesting characters in the movie. 

Tim Roth is thoroughly enjoyable and believable as Emil Blonsky, and I’d love to see him return someday. 

As for the Hulk himself, he has only about three lines of dialogue, but each line is well chosen, delivered at exactly the right moment—with proper dramatic buildup—and well performed by Lou Ferrigno. He sounds exactly the way you'd want the Hulk to sound. 

I found that The Incredible Hulk, unlike Iron Man 2, holds up very well on repeated viewings.

MADDIE: “There are no boring scenes in this movie! Just when I thought things were going to slow down, it just picks right up again! I thought the movie was a little too violent, but I thought the Hulk looked really, really good, very realistic. I liked Betty’s boyfriend Leonard, because he plays Phil on Modern Family and he’s hysterically funny on that show. I liked the fight scene at the end in New York City—the Hulk was getting beat up but when he saw Betty in danger he started fighting back. I especially liked when he said, ‘Hulk smash!’ I would really enjoy knowing whether he and Betty ever saw each other again. I liked Betty, I could definitely see her and Bruce together. I thought Blonsky wanted too much power, and he was out of control when he got it. It was very cool when Tony Stark showed up at the end.”

Thor (2011)


This is sort of a mixture of Clash of the Titans, The Lord of the Rings, Superman, Iron Man, and even a dash of the classic Star Trek episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?” It’s thoroughly entertaining, it never drags, and it’s both exciting and touching.

With director Kenneth Branagh at the helm (an inspired choice, I must say), the uninitiated don’t need to be familiar with the Thor comic books to enjoy the movie. Everything is laid out clearly so that audiences with no prior knowledge can understand who all of the characters are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. But if you are familiar with the comics, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much of the Marvel Comics lore is crammed into the narrative. There are in-jokes aplenty, and cameo appearances from some of the folks who produced the classic comic-book stories on which much of this movie is based (Mr. Lee, Mr. Simonson, Mr. Macchio, take a bow!). 

The cast is uniformly great. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is charming, powerful, arrogant, stubborn, good-humored, and regal—in other words, absolutely true to the comic-book version.

As Jane Foster, Natalie Portman turns in a fine performance and is quite believable as a romantic interest for Thor—despite the fact that he’s about twice her height. There’s real chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman—you totally get why they’re attracted to each other—and it’s fun to watch their relationship grow.

Anthony Hopkins is pretty much perfect as Odin, Thor’s father and the ruler of Asgard. It’s not a particularly large role, but it’s a very important one.

Tom Hiddleston is absolutely wonderful as Loki, Thor’s brother and trusted adviser. Comic book readers already know how Thor and Loki’s relationship develops, but it’s still fun to watch it unfold for the first time in live action—and the characterization for Loki is multi-layered enough that his story arc here should intrigue newcomers and longtime fans alike.

I also have to mention that Jaimie Alexander RULES as Sif, one of Thor’s most loyal friends. She’s one of my very favorite things about this movie. And Idris Elba, who was so great as Michael Scott’s boss, Charles Minor, on NBC’s The Office, makes for an appropriately imposing and enigmatic Heimdall, the guardian of the interdimensional bridge that connects Asgard to Earth.

The CGI is a little unconvincing at times, especially in the early scenes set in Asgard, but for the most part, the special effects are very impressive.

The slow build-up to The Avengers really starts to kick into high gear with Thor, seeing as how it introduces the villain that will cause the Avengers team to come together in the first place.

MADDIE: “I loved how Asgard looked! I really liked the scene where Thor pressured his friends to go with him to Jotunheim and he tries to take credit for Sif being such a great warrior and Sif says that she proved it on her own. And then Thor says, ‘Yes, but I supported you!’ Sif was very cool, very fierce and she really proved that a woman could be a warrior. I really liked Jane Foster—she really believed in Thor and she was good at physics. I liked Darcy a whole lot—she always had something funny to say! And I really liked Thor. At the beginning, he was very full of himself and by the end he learned to care more about others. He was very funny when he kept getting hit by the car, he got a shot in the butt by the doctors and it knocked him out, and I really liked it when Darcy tasered him! I liked that Loki was such a good liar—you think he’s a good guy and on Thor’s side, and then you find out he’s not. He wanted his father’s approval more than anything else and he wanted to rule Asgard and wanted to get rid of Thor. I liked Odin—you could see in Odin’s eyes that he was very wise.”

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)


This has just the right amount of action, characterization, romance, and top-notch special effects to ensure two full hours of solid and satisfying entertainment.

Despite having to cover Cap’s origin, his emergence as an important military figure during World War II at home and abroad, his missions with the small band of soldiers known as The Howling Commandos (never referred to as such in the film, but that’s who they are), his burgeoning relationship with a beautiful female British military agent, and his earliest encounters with the Red Skull, the power-hungry Nazi madman who will become his number-one arch-foe, the film never really drags or feels bogged down. The storytelling is straightforward and well paced.

Director Joe Johnston shows his fine eye for period detail, transporting his audience to the past and making it look and feel authentic. Johnston resists poking fun of or demeaning Cap’s image as a square-jawed, purely good, totally moral, even slightly na├»ve super hero. The easiest, most natural thing in the world, especially during this particularly cynical age we live in, would be to portray Cap as corny and silly and to treat him with condescension or barely concealed contempt (a la the Adam West Batman TV series). But that’s not the case here. Cap is treated with the utmost respect and is hands-down the coolest character in the film, as well he should be.

Chris Evans does a masterful job bringing Steve Rogers to life. He gets considerable help in the first half of the film from some amazing and thoroughly convincing CGI artistry, which is used to make him the short, scrawny, 90-pound weakling version of the character. But the decency, the earnestness, and the determination with which Evans imbues “puny Steve” carries over even after the character is “super-soldierized” and Evans gets to show off his impressive physique.

The rest of the cast is equally good. Hayley Atwell brings a combination of beauty, brains, and (ahem) balls to the role of British agent Peggy Carter, who is definitely no damsel in distress. This lady can take care of herself, and isn’t intimidated by anyone. Atwell has great chemistry with Evans.

Tommy Lee Jones brings plenty of authority and strength to the role of U.S. Army Colonel Chester Phillips—and has some of the best, funniest lines. Dominic Cooper portrays Howard Stark, father of Tony, and you can definitely see an effort to both connect and contrast the two characters in terms of looks, attitude, and behavior. Sebastian Stan plays Steve Rogers’s best friend, James “Bucky” Buchanan, who emerges as one of the most likable characters in the film.

As the Red Skull, Hugo Weaving is very energetic, very committed, very entertaining. But I found that there was something missing. In fact, for me, the Skull is probably the most disappointing element of the film, and the problem is in the writing. The character is just not developed enough. He’s a bit too one-dimensional—there’s not much depth to him, and therefore, he’s not quite as interesting as he should be. He’s not nearly as complex as, say, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. I will say that the CGI artists did a great job depicting the Skull’s “true” appearance, which wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it was Weaving simply wearing a red rubber skull mask.

MADDIE: “I really, really liked this one. I liked all the weapons and I liked that Steve Rogers kept pointing out all the spots in Brooklyn where he had gotten beat up! I liked Captain America’s relationship with Bucky—they always stood by each other. I liked when Peggy told Captain America that a lot of soldiers didn’t survive and his first thought was about whether Bucky was okay. I liked the team of soldiers that work with Captain America, especially Dugan—he was silly, drinking all the beer and he had that funny mustache! Peggy was pretty and tough! The Red Skull was very creepy—I didn’t like when he took off the mask. It was upsetting to me that Captain America never got to date the love of his life. It was very sad when he says to Nick Fury, ‘I had a date.’”

And there you have it. The end of Captain America: The First Avenger presumably sets up the beginning of The Avengers, and you’ll be able to read about that here very soon…

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

MONKEE BUSINESS



Davy Jones died on February 29, but for me, it’s only starting to sink in now. I’m not sure why. Had it been someone like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, or Brian Wilson, you can be sure I would’ve written a few hundred thousand words about it here by now. But truth to tell, I’m not really a big Monkees fanatic. At least, not since I was about eight years old. And Davy was never my favorite Monkee anyway. I always liked Mike Nesmith the best, followed by Micky Dolenz. Even as a kid, I felt Davy was a little too schmaltzy, too “showbizzy,” for my tastes. 

Nevertheless, back then I watched the reruns of the TV series every day after school and I enjoyed them immensely. My older brother and sister graciously gave me the Monkees albums they owned—The Monkees, More of the Monkees, and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (For some reason, neither of them owned Headquarters, one of the group’s very best efforts.)

But then, in 1977, I received my first Beatles album: The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. And after that, for me it was pretty much, “Monkees who?”


Many years later, though, I began to reacquaint myself with the Monkees. And then my friend Greg Plonowski gave me a set of tape cassettes featuring all of the songs on Listen to the Band, the excellent and very thorough career-spanning 4-CD box set put out by Rhino Records in 1991.


And I liked a lot of what I heard, much of which was completely new to me. By the time I met my wife Ginny and her sister Wendy, both of whom have been HUGE Monkees fans for most of their lives, I was well versed in most of the group’s catalogue—a fact that served me very well, I must say. (More on that later.) 

I’ve seen the Monkees (Micky, Davy, and Peter) in concert twice—once in 2001 and most recently in June 2011. It was a shame that Mike wasn’t with them, as both shows were very enjoyable and his presence would have made them even better. But it’s well known that Mike has long sought to leave the Monkees part of his life in the distant past. Still, it’s nice to see that Mike attended Davy’s memorial service, reuniting with Micky and Peter for the first time in 16 years.


I’ve been listening to a lot of Monkees stuff over the last few days—like I said above, the passing of Davy took a while to set in with me. And as I’ve been zeroing in on my very favorite songs of theirs, it occurred to me to rank my top 20 here. As you’ll see from this list, Mike remains my favorite Monkee, followed by Micky. Davy and Peter Tork aren’t forgotten, but they certainly aren’t at the forefront. (Poor Peter got so few opportunities to shine during his time with the group anyway.) You’ll also find that I tend to veer away from the overly familiar hits and lean more towards the lesser known stuff—the “deep cuts,” if you will.

So, without further ado:

20. “Listen to the Band”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Mike


Mike’s last major contribution to the Monkees before he quit the group in 1970 to pursue a solo career. I first heard it in 1986 when Entertainment Tonight showed a clip of Mike performing it live with the reunited Monkees at a concert in L.A., and I liked it immediately.

19. “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her”
Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Lead vocals: Mike


Recorded in 1966 but not released until 1969. A surprisingly effective breakup song that really captures how you feel after a particularly painful split.

18. “Sunny Girlfriend”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Mike (with Micky)


A fun, barely remembered track off of Headquarters. Hearing it for the first time in the early 1990s, I felt like I’d discovered a hidden gem.

17. “Nine Times Blue”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Mike



Mike recorded several versions of this song over the years, but my favorite is actually the original demo, which was included on Rhino’s 1995 re-release of Headquarters. Nesmith performed the song live on The Johnny Cash Show with Micky and Davy in 1969 (Peter had already quit the group by that point), and the three of them really sounded great together. Makes me wonder why Mike didn’t have them doing the background vocals when he recorded the official Monkees version of the song, which actually didn’t get released until the Listen to the Band box set. 

16. “As We Go Along”
Written by: Carole King & Toni Stern
Lead vocals: Micky


A highlight from the soundtrack of the ill-fated Monkees movie Head, produced after the TV series went off the air.

15. “Porpoise Song”
Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Lead vocals: Micky (with Davy)


Another fine song from Head.

14. “What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ ‘Round?”
Written by Michael Martin Murphey & Owen Castleman
Lead vocals: Mike


One of the many high points on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone magazine calls this “one of the greatest pop songs ever.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do like it a whole lot.

13. “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”
Written by Neil Diamond
Lead vocals: Davy


A very catchy song, with one of Davy’s most effective vocals.

12. “Pleasant Valley Sunday”
Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Lead vocals: Micky (with Davy and Mike)


The biggest hit you’ll see on this list. A great song that paints a vivid picture of life in suburbia, both the good parts and the not-so-good.

11. “Salesman”
Written by Craig Smith
Lead vocals: Mike


Another winner from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. One of Mike’s most engaging performances.

10. “You Told Me”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Mike


The opening track of Headquarters. The count-in at the beginning is a spoof of the first few seconds of “Taxman,” the first song on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver. I liked this song so much, I used to perform it live when I was in the band Corporate Axe.

9. “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)”
Written by Neil Diamond
Lead vocals: Davy


A great track off of the More of the Monkees album. (As an aside, I’m convinced there’s a very naughty lyric being sung in the background when Davy sings “lips like strawberry pie”.)

8. “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”
Written by Michael Nesmith & Roger Atkins
Lead vocals: Mike


A thoroughly enjoyable gem from More of the Monkees. Great for a guy to listen to right after he meets a girl and finds himself smitten with her.

7. “Sometime in the Morning”
Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Lead vocals: Micky


Also from More of the Monkees, this features one of Micky’s most soaring performances. It’s not a direct love song, in that it’s about a guy expressing deep admiration for—and maybe even some jealousy about—his friend’s wonderful relationship with a girl. This one is always a pleasure to listen to.

6. “I’ll Spend My Life With You”
Written by Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart
Lead vocals: Micky


The group recorded two versions of this very touching and heartfelt song, one of which appeared on Headquarters. But I prefer the earlier, less “countrified” version, which went unreleased until the Listen to the Band box set (and was then released again on the 1994 reissue of More of the Monkees).

5. “I Don’t Think You Know Me”
Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Lead vocals: Peter (with Davy, Micky, and Mike)


Never released on any of the original Monkees albums and never played on the TV show, this stayed in the vault until the Listen to the Band box set. Different versions exist featuring Mike and Micky each on lead vocals, and those have appeared on various reissues and collections over the years. My favorite version, though, is the one in which Peter has the spotlight. His voice is admittedly imperfect throughout the performance—but charmingly so, displaying real and endearing vulnerability.

4. “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Micky (with Mike)


I think I’ve loved this one since the first time I heard it. One of the very first songs I taught myself to play on guitar. A rare example of Mike not trying to inject a country flavor into one of his compositions.

3. “You Just May Be the One”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Mike (with Micky)


There are two versions of this song. One appeared in the TV series and the other was on the Headquarters album. The Headquarters version has a slight edge over the TV one, owing to the fact that it features Micky on backup and harmony vocals.

2. “Papa Gene’s Blues”
Written by Michael Nesmith
Lead vocals: Mike (with Micky)


I’ve always loved this song, but it took on greater meaning for me in mid-1996, when I went on my first long drive with the gal who would eventually become my wife. It was fairly early in our relationship. We were cruising along the highway, she popped her favorite Monkee cassette into the tape deck, this song came on, I started singing along—and she was VERY impressed that I knew ALL of the words. I think at that moment, she realized that we were meant for each other.

1. “The Door Into Summer”
Written by Chip Douglas & Bill Martin
Lead vocals: Mike (with Micky)


When I “rediscovered” the Monkees thanks to my friend Greg, this was the song that I embraced more than any other. To this day, it never fails to put a smile on my face when it comes on, and I place it at the very top of the heap.

No, the Monkees weren’t in the same league as the Beatles or the Who or even the Beach Boys. But I’ve long since come to the conclusion that they didn’t need to be. They’ve got a history and a body of work that they can—and should—be proud of. 

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.