Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Avengers, Footnote, and The Five-Year Engagement

     Crisis Control—Large and Small Scale
               Review by Ken Burke                The Avengers

This is a great action-filled Marvel Universe comic book movie with equal attention paid to all of the major characters, but don’t try to make it into more than that implies.

Those of you outside of academia may not believe the minute intricacies that this Israeli film explores; sadly (but wonderfully) enough, please believe how plausible it all is.
                                            The Five-Year Engagement

Delayed satisfaction in a romantic comedy is as old a concept as the genre allows, although this one does a decent job of keeping us strung out until it’s all wrapped up.
            You might be asking yourself, how could a world-famous film review blogger (notice that I didn’t say which planet) wait THIS LONG to finally post comments about the MOVIE.WITH.THE.BIGGEST.OPENING.WEEKEND.EVER? (In the U.S. that is; The Avengers, Marvel-Disney's assault on our collective wallets raked in a monstrous $207,438,708 for the domestic till in its first three days—although it will take a bit more than that to cover its costs, yet there’s little concern that there won’t be adequate profits soon—but Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, Part 2 [David Yates, 2011] is still the foreign champ with $314,000,000 at its debut, which combined with its U.S. first-run haul gives it the worldwide opening weekend title at $483,189,427.  However, The Avengers is also headed for loftier territory on the All-Time lists, currently at #71 for the U.S. totals and #39 for worldwide, but with its current income increasing over 150% from last week—the second and third wave audiences must now be attending after waiting for the initial fanboy [and girl] onslaught to recede.)  The reason for my delay is that despite my enthusiasm for seeing this movie—I did get there opening day but not at midnight—I found myself preoccupied last week with my real job of grading term papers for my Film in American Society class at world-renowned Mills College in lovely sundrenched (for a change) Oakland, CA (although, based on the results a good number of my students would likely have preferred that I spent my time reviewing films rather than reviewing their grammer, gramar, grammar problems).  But now that final exams are over and the academic world is once again safe from my red ink, let’s see how safe the latest big box-office kahuna is from my devastating hammer-blow comments.

            I guess if I’m to be criticized for being a week late with the goods on the Marvel muscle-gang then I’m also likely to be criticized for giving Joss Whedon’s blockbuster a mere 3 ½ stars.  However, while I liked The Avengers a lot (even in mere 2-D) I have to praise it more for being an effective adaptation of a comic-book premise than for the essential quality of either the narrative or its implications.  Unlike Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight (no slouch itself at the box office, with the #3 ranking for both domestic opening weekend and All-Time grosses and #10 on the worldwide All-Time list with just over $1 billion in ticket sales), which managed to transcend the simple good vs. evil battle so necessary for these fantasy superhero films and present us with a chilling metaphor for our terrorist-infested times with Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the deeply psychotic, chaos-embracing Joker, The Avengers’ biggest triumph is simply balancing out the screen time and plot points among a crowd of characters who could (and in some cases, have) star(ed) in their own films to present a story that keeps a coherent narrative thread even for those who haven’t seen the lead-ups to the current movie in the previous Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Incredible Hulk (with Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner this time around but Eric Bana and Edward Norton previously), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) offerings.  That’s no small feat, given how audience loyalty could easily make it difficult to please those whose attentions are focused mainly on just one of the principal villain-bashers noted above and don’t want to be bored having to endure the scenes where the others dominate—not to mention pleasing a further cadre of fans whose preferences are for more screen time for the well-toned, crafty, but non-superhuman members of the team, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as those who appreciate the supporting roles of respected actors Stellan Skarsgård as hijacked scientist Erik Selvig and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s co-executive and cohabitator.  Just getting all of these costumed crusaders and their cohorts into situations where they’re effectively not tripping all over each other—except when they’re purposely doing intra-team alpha-assertion chest-thumping—is a great accomplishment, much to the credit of screenwriter Whedon and his collaborators (who also manage to work a lot of effective humor into the script, giving much-needed comic relief to an otherwise intensive, pounding 142 minute thrill ride).

            What we get here isn’t really much more than a series of WWE-pay-per-view-like combat collisions that lead up to the main event (it’s getting pretty obvious from my constant wrestling references that I waste too much cash on these idiotic monthly events, isn’t it?) of stopping the twisted “god” Loki (unlike in the original comics, he and his stepbrother Thor aren’t really ancient Norse deities but instead are very powerful aliens from a quite distant planet) and his vicious minions from conquering Earth.  (Why we’re the only other planet in the universe that all of these maniacal off-worlders want to invade is beyond me; haven’t they seen how our numbers have fallen on the Interplanetary Stock Exchange because of our global warming and pollution problems?)  Beyond that, it’s pretty much like every other alien invasion movie you’ve seen or could imagine where huge, noxious things just keep coming out of the sky to wreck havoc until the seemingly outmatched hero saviors can come up with a last-minute winning strategy.  (With one of the best of the type for me being Roland Emmerich’s 1996 Independence Day, where an equally well-established group of Earth stars [Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid, etc.] finally triumph, with a detonation trick straight out of the original Star Wars [now Episode IV: A New Hope, George Lucas, 1977], resulting in a collapse of the invading army, just as Loki’s vicious beasts are tamed when he’s no longer able to channel the power of the mysterious energy cube, the Tesseract—the sort of plot device that Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin,” a necessary element to push the story forward but not something that had to be all that well explained or even rational because after awhile you get caught up in the events surrounding it and you don’t care much about whatever inspired the initial motivations of the action.  Loki’s still agog over the Tesseract until the end but we’ve got more animate objects to pay attention to.)

            Speaking of renegade Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston) brings me to another line of commentary about tales such as what we find in The Avengers.  Loki is a fascinating villain, well played by Hiddleston as a brooding younger brother whose vicious ambitions are clearly fueled by his desire to be a different kind of avenger, one who seeks to rule Earth simply to antagonize sibling Thor and to give himself a realm to dominate (“Freedom is life’s great lie,” “You were made to be ruled”) because his previous goal of taking over Asgard from daddy Odin was thwarted by the blonde hammer slammer.  Yet, Loki is the only clearly defined villain in this complex plot structure of interlocking grudge matches, which makes for a narrative problem of balanced levels of intrigue, because if you have just one articulated antagonist it’s hard to have him in direct combat with all of the unified superheroes (unless the archfiend is so immensely powerful that even a squadron of superhuman opponents are barely enough, as with the mid-‘80s DC Comics destroyer, the Anti-Monitor, who was so impressive that even the combined power of Superman, the Green Lantern Corps, and everyone else in their stable was barely enough to defeat him), so you have to set up limited one-on-one encounters between Loki and Thor, Loki and Iron Man, and, finally, Loki and the Hulk which results in the Hulk literally wiping the floor with his foe, showing once and for all that these Asgardians aren’t as all-powerful or even immortal as we have mistakenly understood them to be (although when armed with the right weapons such as Loki’s Tesseract-fueled staff or Thor’s mighty mallet, Mjolner, you don’t want to irritate them too much).  But even Loki can’t be everywhere at once so as needed fill-in for a movie structure that demands all-action-all-the-time we end up with the superheroes battling each other over various interpersonal grievances until they finally see the light of survival necessity, then put all of their energies and abilities in service of defeating Loki's army as a team rather than each one attempting to dish out justice as he sees fit.

            And it will mostly be he, not much she; as has been pointed out quite a bit already, Johansson’s Black Widow is effectively deadly when up against human baddies—to the point of defeating several of them even though she’s tied to a chair when we first see her in The Avengers—but after the extraterrestrial invaders show up her martial arts skills and pistol power are pretty feeble weapons, leaving her relegated to the background battles; even equally human Hawkeye has some potent arrows in his quiver that allow him to be a more impactful warrior, but despite attempts to provide female moviegoers and comic book readers with some alternatives to the testosterone powerhouses of these stories, it’s still mostly a man’s world, at least until DC and Warners figure out how to properly bring Wonder Woman to the screen (along with possibly the DC version of The Avengers, the Justice League of America, joining her with Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash [not on screen yet either] and other heavy hitters).  These ensemble stories are hard to control, with even the comics versions also heavy on constant combat just to give all of the players a starring scene and a frequent use of intra-squad squabbles to keep the spotlight on the known characters without further cluttering up the story flow with a lot of famous villains as well.

            For those who are familiar with the various Avengers movie characters that led up to the current collaboration but not so much with the comic book backgrounds from which they spring (Which includes me.  As a kid in the 1950s I read a lot of Superman and Batman when they were both just patriotic crime stoppers, but over the years I’ve only occasionally returned to get insights on the more traumatized Dark Knight, the larger cosmic context of the Green Lanterns, and the occasional reset of the universe as the DC folks get too bogged down in plotlines and have to freshen things up with a new collection of origin stories; about the time that Marvel was discovering how the not-as-patriotic-and-homogenized-as-they-were-assumed-to-be teenagers of the world would respond to the more troubled versions of superheroes like Spiderman and the Hulk, I was discovering my own traumas with dating so the only Marvel character I ever followed much was Thor, during my college years, when the audacity of using a god as a superhero fascinated me, hence the helmet in the photo at the top of this review.), the character of Nick Fury, a major agent of the secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division for the films, but with different titles over the years in the comics) may be a bit of a mystery, just as the various appearances of S.H.I.E.L.D.-related characters in the previous individual  Avengers movies may have been more confusing than helpful as plot elements, especially if you didn’t see all of the episodes that lead to the current team-up.  I’m sure that now with the overwhelming success of this first Avengers collaboration we’ll see more of Nick in the future, possibly as a lead in his own film not only so that we can better understand his (and his organization’s) connection to this cluster of superheroes but also because Jackson is such a compelling and successful screen presence.  (He was already claimed as the most successful box-office actor of all time, helped not only by the large number of movies he’s been in—although often as an ensemble player rather than a singular lead—but also by the enormous financial success of Jurassic Park [Steven Spielberg, 1993] and the Star Wars prequels; with the added revenue from The Avengers he could probably start his own studio if he wanted to produce Nick Fury films at his leisure.)

            However, I do hope that when the inevitable Avengers sequels make it to the theatres that they don’t succumb to the X-Men syndrome of constantly piling on new members of the team just to play to the sensibilities of bloggers and Comic-Con attendees; I know that constitutes enough of an audience to probably pay back the increasing production costs of these high-tech superhero wonders, but for those of us who can barely tell Hawkeye from DC’s Green Arrow or still don’t understand how the Captain Marvel family ended up in the DC universe, can we just keep it to the big names already established in the current Avengers?  I’m all for giving Black Widow more to do next time (and for keeping Whedon at the helm to make sure this huge ship doesn’t head for the icebergs) but we’ve already got more than enough to work with here without having to do a class reunion of every costumed savior who ever helped poor battered NYC (the Public Works Dept. must never be able to finish the cleanup of the last attack before the next one starts).  So I say to Marvel and Disney, stay with the good thing you’ve got; don’t make, as Nick Fury says, any “stupid-ass decisions” with your Avengers sequels.

            And speaking of “stupid-ass decisions,” the Israeli academics and government officials who give a prestigious award to the wrong guy in director-writer Joseph Cedar‘s Footnote create a crisis of their own, not on the scale of Loki invading Earth, certainly, but still a terrible state of affairs for the family of father and son professors and their long-suffering wives (and if you want direct testimony from the long-suffering wife of a college professor I’ll give you Nina’s direct email address … on second thought, maybe not or I’ll be the one suffering when she starts getting even more unsolicited email than she already does … OK, never mind that idea and back to the review which is already in progress)Footnote was one of the nominees for the 2011 Foreign Language Oscar, certainly a worthy contender (although I’ve yet to see one that tops the winner, A Separation [Asghar Farhadi]) and a story that delves into interior interpersonal crises in a manner that is seemingly light years away from the external action-filled crises of The Avengers.  Still, for the individuals involved in the very intense scholarly conflicts explored in Footnote the stakes may seem as high and the outcome might be just as devastating as what happened in Manhattan because that’s how critical the world of the scholar feels to those whose lives are fully invested in it.  (Again, I’m speaking from over 30 years of experience living and competing in this compressed universe of seemingly gigantic conflicts over such tiny grains of accomplishment.)  In brief, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a traditionalist Talmudic scholar in Israel who works in a painstaking manner examining his research topics by carefully comparing endless lines of text and commentary, trying to draw inferences from the implications of his ancient evidence.  His one major accomplishment is being listed in a footnote by an even more prominent scholar, although Eliezer would have seemingly proved the existence of a long-lost version of the Jerusalem Talmud through 30 years of meticulous inductive logic except that a colleague, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn)now the head of Dr. Shkolnik’s university department, accidently stumbled on an actual copy of the old manuscript and claimed the praise more appropriate for Eliezar.  His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi, shown above) provides further frustration for dad by achieving many more academic acknowledgements than his father ever did, including membership in the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.  Just when the frustrations for the respected but bitter elder Shkolnik can’t seem to get any worse he’s suddenly awarded the Israel Prize for scholarship (his dream for 20 years), but Uriel is quietly informed that there was a mix-up in the record-keeping and the prize was intended for him, not his father.

            Obviously, the clearest path to correction would be admission of error, which the awarding committee wants to do immediately, especially the haughty Prof. Grossman, still wallowing in his earlier triumph over Eliezar, but Uriel begrudgingly, angrily refuses because he knows how devastated his now elated father would be to find that his only major accolade was a mistake intended for his offspring, especially when he doesn’t really approve of his son’s research methods of Internet tools, etc. rather than the traditionally laborious work of textual analysis.  The problem is that Uriel is just as bitter as his father (and neither of their wives are very happy either, nor are Uriel’s children), despite his previous successes.  He desperately wants the prize even as he tries to be generous enough to grant his antagonistic dad some measure of recognition for all of the praiseworthy time and energy his elder devoted to the understanding of proper scholarship.  This may all seem silly and petty to anyone outside the supposedly hallowed halls of university life, but this film for me cuts through the public personas of professors who are vaguely admired by the outside world for their seeming command of arcane human accomplishments, revealing the bitter warfare that goes on in small offices (especially the intentionally ridiculous one where Uriel comes to argue for preserving his father’s dignity by allowing him to keep the unjustified prize) on obscure campuses where lives and careers are preserved or lost, not always because of actual achievements but as the result of political decisions that would make for juicy social scandals if revealed in forums such as 60 Minutes (if anyone wanted to watch academic scandals instead of political ones) rather than being forever sealed behind the wall of “personnel decisions.”  As shown in the clips noted below there’s a clever cinematic device of presenting a montage of the father’s and son’s biographies through imagery that seems to have been created on a computer but presented in a traditional slide show of static, shifting images.  This gives an effect of distancing us from anything but the objective rendering of these two troubled men while still revealing the emotional turmoil that lies beneath their public surfaces.  (Done in a manner not unlike the opening information-laden newsreel biography in Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941].  How long has it been since I’ve dragged up this eternal favorite of mine for comparison to merely mortal films? If it’s been too long, don’t despair because I’m sure it will be back again soon—and often.)

            Neither of these guys are people you’d like to hang around with, even if you respect their different approaches to the life of the mind, but they’re both passionate about their understandings of how that life should be lived, even though such passion results in public praise but constant tension within their private worlds so that no generation of this family has any sense of resolution or personal fulfillment.  (These professors’ outlooks are as cluttered as their parallel offices, piled with books and papers that prove their intentions but with few tangible results, especially for patriarch Eliezer, that show that the effort has been worthwhile—Uriel is more respected and honored by the academic establishment for his scholarly investigations, but it seems to bring him little joy, especially as he desperately covets the award mistakenly announced for his father.)

            Given that this was a small-release film to begin with and has likely already departed even the larger urban centers where it played, I doubt that you’ll have access to it prior to an upcoming DVD release so I’ll go ahead—as usual—and ruin the ending for the uninitiated by praising the unresolved ambiguity of having father and son arrive at the public occasion for the awarding of the Israel Prize but with Eliezer having applied his meticulous research methods once again to wording in his announcement letter that leads him to the conclusion that his son wrote the letter (a condition of grumpy Prof. Grossman’s in agreeing to allow his old foe to keep the prize, that his son could never receive it and must provide the substantiating evidence that his father was worthy, a final humiliation for both generations of troubled Shkolniks).  The film arbitrarily cuts off before any resolution to the discourse (in a manner like the sudden cut to black at the conclusion of The Sopranos TV series) so we never know if Eliezer reveals the ruse and refuses the award or accepts it in order to ostensibly prove his intellectual worthiness despite knowing that the honor is not his to accept, even more importantly knowing how this mistake is realized by the people to whom he is most shamed not to admit it.  If the seemingly miniscule struggles presented here seem silly and pointless to those of you not part of the isolated pressure-cooker world of academia, all I can say is that this film reveals the constant clandestine struggles and grasping for recognition that are such a vital part of the so-called scholarly world.  Footnote may not be nearly as relatable to the masses as is the 9/11 metaphor of another callous attack on New York City as shown in The Avengers, but for a small social segment of us it’s just as meaningful and every bit as passionately critical to our obscure existences.  If you can resonate with that, even at a distance from its academic setting, I’d highly recommend that you seek out this film; it’s a rare gem that slowly grows on your consciousness, even weeks after the viewing.

            By comparison, The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stroller) would only grow mold after its initial encounter if left out in the cultural atmosphere for too long, although it’s pleasant enough upon first taste but it just doesn’t hold its flavor after the initial digestion (there’s a lot about cooking in this movie so just bear with the food references if you will).  The only reason that I include this pleasant but easily forgettable romantic comedy with the other two films analyzed in this review is its connection to the sometimes rotten world of academia shared by Footnote and Violet’s (Emily Blunt) immersion into the shenanigans (and worse) of the Psychology Department at Michigan State.  Shortcomings of the university environment aren’t the main focus of The Five-Year Engagement, however; instead this is more of a story about how the sacrifices needed for ongoing couplehood are put to the severe test when one partner gets much of what she wants but the other has to give up too much in order to just be with her even if his own life is getting as frozen as an upper-Midwest winterscape.  Tom (Jason Segal) couldn’t be more charming and accommodating to the love of his life when her post-doctoral career leads her far away from their intended San Francisco locale, where his aspiring chef’s career was just about to blossom before getting nipped in the bud.  He goes along with Violet only to find that upscale cooking options aren’t so available in Ann Arbor (not because of his abilities but mostly because no one thinks he’s sane for leaving San Francisco for the “exotic wonderment” of rustbelt life; I guess that means they can’t trust him with a knife either).  Why exactly their planned marriage is put on hold until both of them have somehow settled into more permanent careers (even as her grandparents keep dying during the extended waiting period) is never adequately explained (because that would likely eliminate the whole premise of the movie before we even hit the half-hour mark), so they continue to postpone, even as he becomes a socially-withdrawn deer hunter and she dazzles her supervising professor into an appointment extension thereby complicating the conditions of this romantic comedy in a manner that was probably original in about 500 B.C. but has been explored quite a bit ever since in a good number of other options which are non-surprisingly similar to this one.

            The dialogue in this movie is often witty, the two leads are very endearing (even when they’re getting on each other’s—and our—nerves), and the delicious dishes that keep popping up throughout the plot make for a great incentive to have dinner after the screening, but despite the pleasant time you’ll spend with Tom and Violet (and all of their unconventional/downright wacky friends and family) you’ll be able to write this one in your head while you’re watching it, stopping only to admire the landscapes of the locations (including some beautiful shots of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, despite its not being a likely route to go toward or away from Michigan, but who wants to quibble over geography when we’ve already heard enough complaints about Benjamin Braddock driving the wrong way over the neighboring Bay Bridge to get to and from Berkeley in The Graduate [Mike Nichols, 1967]).  However, the ugly side of academia rears its uncomfortable head again after the relocation as our cozy couple begins to drift away from each other, leaving Violet more susceptible to the advances of her faculty supervisor, Prof. Winton Childs (smarmy Rhys Ifans).  In a not-unexpected manner he proves to be domineering, manipulative, and unethical—in other words, the epitome of the long-time university academic aristocrat, although that proves enough of an attraction for Violet as Tom wanders back west and reinvents himself as the commander of the best taco truck on the west coast.  How he thinks that new success will translate to the snow-covered streets of Ann Arbor when he links up with Violet again and agrees to return with her because of his new-found culinary mobility isn’t all that clear to me (nor is the reality that she’ll still be working with former lover Dr. Childs), but at this point in the film we’re back in MacGuffin-land where the complications have gone on long enough and unexplored resolutions are the daily special (with a side of chips and salsa, I bet).

            There’s nothing wrong with The Five-Year Engagement, it’s just a bit of an expected delivery after the set-up from the trailer.  For the relatively short time of your life that you’ll spend watching it you’ll find a very pleasant romantic encounter and a couple of lead actors that are well matched with each other (although Blunt also seemed a nice match with Ewan McGregor in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen [Lasse Hallström] so maybe she’s just the über-compatible Everywoman), but it’s just a well-executed genre movie, as is its much more expensive current theatrical companion, The Avengers.  If you’re really looking for more than you already know what to expect from the available previews, I’d recommend Footnote as the best of this bunch mainly because it offers much more than it seems to promise even if it purposely refuses to resolve anything that you might expect to have closure.  I can count on Tom and Violet resolving their differences, just as I can count on the superhero collaborative to save Manhattan once again from total destruction; what I can’t count on is what will become of the embattled Shkolnik family, which I won’t learn from the film either, but Footnote is worth more with its speculations than the resolved feeling that comes with these other pleasant but predictable formula packages.  Sometimes contemplating the next iteration of the crisis is the more satisfying option than seeing it safely diffused (although speed-riding to the conclusion of The Avengers is also time well-invested, if just for the adrenalin rush of its spectacular special effects).

            If you’d like to explore more about The Avengers here are some useful links:

            If you’d like to research more about Footnote here are some useful links: (this is another one of those sites that offers you a link to watching the whole film for free; pursue it as you wish)

            If you’d like to know more about The Five-Year Engagement here are some useful links: (short interview with producer Judd Apatow)

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