My Top 10 Avengers moments (lots of spoilers here)

Director Joss Whedon has had only one previous theatrical release, the 2005 ‘space opera Western’ Serenity which grossed US$ 38 million worldwide. By the end of its first week, his new movie The Avengers would have made back its US$ 220 million production budget at the box office. From then on, it’s gravy.

The movie has an exciting blend of snappy dialogue and action set pieces. The script works hard to set up the relationships and dynamic between the different characters. The only disappointment is Maria Hill who comes off looking like Nick Fury’s secretary, rather than the character who will become interim Director of SHIELD.

I’m not going to review the film; there will be plenty of good reviews online. I just want to post my Top 10 favorite moments from the film…there are spoilers here, but even so, I have tried not to reveal too much for those who haven’t seen the film, but can’t stop themselves from reading ahead!

10. Tony Stark – Pepper Potts – Agent Coulson banter; Stark doesn’t seem to appreciate Potts being on a first name basis with “Phil” 🙂

9. Dr. Banner ‘Hulks Out’ for the first time; the Black Widow is in the way.

8. The villain for Avengers 2 appears.

7. Agent Coulson fires a gun and then checks out.

6. Hulk grabs a falling Iron Man.

5. SHIELD research facility implodes.

4. Dr. Banner says “I’m always angry” then turns to face the Chitauri creature.

3. Capt. America and David Banner think the SHIELD aircraft carrier is going to submerge…but we know better, don’t we?

2. Black Widow vs. her Russian interrogators…many uses for a chair.

1. Hulk vs. Loki on the roof of the Stark Tower. Soon after, Hulk says “Puny God”.

The last scene was the most satisfying; I think everyone in the audience felt that way and we could have happily sat through a few more seconds of that.

I think it’s pretty certain that The Avengers will overtake Spider-Man (US$ 403 million) as the top grossing Marvel film at the US Box Office and Spider-Man 3 (US$ 890 million) as the top grossing Marvel film worldwide.


Chris Nolan’s DGA interview: the film vs. video argument and much more.

Ahead of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan talks to the Directors Guild of America on a variety of topics. Here’s the full interview transcript from the DGA site.

I loved reading that Mr. Nolan prefers using film to digital video. This is music to my ears; in recent times I have been quite disappointed with the look of movies shot on digital video, such as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and Collateral. Of course, I can understand that with much of Collateral having been shot at night time, the video format gave Michael Mann a lot more flexibility than film would have.

But for me, the possibilities of film were best illustrated in Saving Private Ryan. Here, Spielberg and his DP Janusz Kaminski (who won an Oscar for his work) use different types of film stock, different film speeds and different levels of color saturation to heighten the intensity of the battle scenes. It’s no surprise that Mr. Spielberg is another director, like Chris Nolan, who continues to use film stock rather than video.

My own dislike for the video format stems from way back to the analog days of 1986 when the Indian partition-era epic drama series Buniyaad  suddenly switched from film to video after the first few episodes. Of course, in the case of a TV show, it is the done thing to shoot in video so in fact, it was the film stock used for the first few episodes which was the exception. Nevertheless, the switch served to highlight the differences between the two formats and instilled in me an enduring dislike for the look and feel of video.

Of course, today when we say ‘video’ in the context of a feature film, we no longer refer to the old analog video format, but instead the digital video format which is far more flexible and can indeed be made to mimic the look of film stock, if put through enough post-production processes. Here is a link to an interesting article on this subject.

But, as Chris Nolan says, why go to all the cost and trouble of making video look like film, when you can just shoot with film? This is the same thought that runs through my mind when I see animation filmmakers trying to make animated characters look as photo-real as possible…why not just shoot a live action film then?

Chris Nolan also talks about his preference for physical special effects, enhanced by CGI rather than pure CGI. Again, I couldn’t agree more. I was so disappointed with the flat video game look of the 2nd Star Wars trilogy or Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Contrast that with solidity of visuals in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Indeed, Nolan’s the man! The Dark Knight Rises releases in theatres in the 3rd week of July. After that, the next time we will see his name in the credits is when the new Superman movie Man of Steel  releases in June 2013 – Mr. Nolan has a co-writing credit on the story.

War Horse – A triumph of (a horse’s) spirit over adversity

I could think of absolutely no reason why I wanted to watch War Horse other than the fact that it is directed by Steven Spielberg.

It is not based on a popular young adult series or comic book or video game (it is based on a children’s novel – but not one with a popular following), it is not a remake or reboot (how I dislike that word) of a popular TV show or a previous film, it cannot really claim to be ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by a true story’, it does not have any famous ‘A-list’ movie stars, is not built around a ‘high concept’ or a ‘surprise ending’ and since it is neither a sci-fi nor fantasy story, the CGI effects in the movie didn’t produce monsters or aliens, only horses.

Of course, wanting to watch a movie because it is directed by Spielberg is not a reason to be sneezed at. War Horse became the 8th Spielberg-directed film to be nominated for a Best Picture and/or Best Director Oscar. He has won twice – for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – both World War II movies. In fact a number of his films have a WWII setting, but this is the first time Spielberg has tackled the World War I period.

War Horse also marks the 6th occasion that Spielberg has directed 2 films in the same year; he first completed this daunting task in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always. He really hit his stride in 1993 with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. In 1997, we had The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can came along in 2002 followed by the War of the Worlds-Munich combo in 2005. I actually don’t know of any other directors who have done this even once. As you can see, the trend has been to do one special-effects-driven summer blockbuster followed by a character-driven film released during awards season in December. This time, Spielberg changed the plot slightly by releasing both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse within a few weeks of each other at the end of 2011.

I mentioned earlier that War Horse features no A-list Hollywood stars. Actually, none of the actors are from Hollywood; unlike so many other period films, here the characters are all played exclusively by native British and European actors. Of course, the central character of the film is the horse, Joey, whereas the humans are clearly the supporting cast.

Born in Devon, England, Joey is bought at an auction by a poor, drunkard farmer who gets carried away by the beauty of the young thoroughbred when he should have been buying a hard-working draught horse instead. The farmer’s wife is distraught but his teenage son Albert cannot believe his luck and promises to rear the horse and somehow turn around the fortunes of the family.

Of course, Spielberg (and American cinema in general) specializes in milking this sort of underdog situation and there are some rousing moments, accompanied by appropriate John Williams score, which establishes the bond between Albert and Joey. Unfortunately, it is 1914 and war is soon declared between England and Germany. The farmer, desperate for money, sells Joey to a Captain in the British Army. Albert arrives at the marketplace too late to stop the sale, but Captain Nicholls (played by Tom Hiddleston who will play arch-villain Loki in the upcoming blockbuster The Avengers) promises him that he will treat the sale as a lease, and will return Joey to Albert at the end of the war. Joey is trained as a cavalry horse and is transported to mainland Europe. As the tides of war ebb and flow, Joey changes hands from the British Army to the German side, then briefly to French civilians before falling back into German hands again.

Meanwhile back home, Albert receives news that Captain Nicholls has been killed in action and realizes that his horse is now missing and perhaps dead. In desperation, he enlists in the Army and is sent to fight in the trenches of France. Anyone who has seen Spielberg’s war movies (including the HBO series he produced like Band of Brothers and The Pacific) know that this man can bring alive the horrors of war like no other contemporary filmmaker. In the second act of the film, we are exposed to these horrors and their effects on both men and horses. Some of the scenes, particularly where we see the animals suffering, are almost unbearable. The story shows soldiers on both sides conscious of this suffering; some reluctantly shrug it off as a consequence of war, while others make an effort to minimize the impact on the animals. It is certainly refreshing to see German soldiers not depicted as evil thugs and this is brought alive during a memorable scene involving Joey, a British and a German officer in the middle of the trenches under a white flag of truce.

There are several dramatic and emotional moments in the final act before Albert and Joey are finally united and return to the farm under a blood red sunset…perhaps signifying that they will forever live with the taint of war.

The acting is universally top-notch from some of the best character actors in England and Europe. As I mentioned earlier, Joey is the star of this movie, so while there are many speaking parts, these roles usually last for just a few minutes…as if the human characters have been created only to play a part in Joey’s extraordinary journey. As always, Spielberg’s usual filmmaking group delivers the goods – John Williams tugs at your heartstrings with his music, Janusz Kaminski is at the top of his game behind the camera and Michael Kahn’s editing helps the two and a half hours go by quickly.

In the end, the overriding sense I got out of the story is that there is some good in everyone and given a chance, that positive spirit will rise to the surface in the face of adversity. To be reminded of that truth became, ultimately, the best reason to watch War Horse.

Ramage: A rousing sea adventure during the Napoleonic Wars

When I was about 10 years old, I went with my parents to a garage sale. There, in addition to some potted plants and miscellaneous bits of furniture, we picked up a dozen assorted paperbacks of various genres. This marked my transition from children’s books to grown up fare. One of these novels was called Ramage’s Diamond,  written by British author Dudley Pope. It told the story of a young naval captain Lord Nicholas Ramage, serving in Nelson’s navy at the beginning of the 19th century.

Besides introducing me to all sorts of nautical terms and detailed descriptions of naval maneuvers, the novel was notable for its in-depth characterization, its insight into the naval politics of the time and for its depiction of the strong ties that bind men who risk their lives in war.

I knew the book was one of a series of novels written by Pope about the Ramage character, but I didn’t come across any of the other books in all these years. In the hope that I would enjoy other stories in this genre, I read Patrick O’Brien’s H.M.S. Surprise which tells the story of another fictitious naval captain Jack Aubrey, during the same period. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy the book, although the Oscar nomnated film Master and Commander based on the first Jack Aubrey book is very well made and quite entertaining.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I finally got hold of Ramage, the first book in the series. It was a wonderful experience to revisit a character that I had first ‘met’ more than 30 years ago…to finally read the back story of how he moved up from lieutenant to captain, met his future wife, scraped through a court martial and met some of the key members of his crew who would thereafter transfer along with him from ship to ship. As with Ramage’s Diamond, what really makes it such enjoyable reading for me is its description of the simple acts of bravery, chivalry and loyalty. Having said that, this is by no means a naive or simplistic account of life at sea during the wars…there is equal measure of cowardice, false pride and political intrigue. The descriptions of the naval maneuvers are fascinating. One can only marvel at the construction of these ships, which enabled them to be steered to an accuracy of a few feet by skilled captains and their well trained officers and men.

I am now on the lookout for C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. Of the 3 fictitious captains of the Napoleonic era (Ramage, Aubrey and Hornblower), it is Horatio Hornblower  who is the most well known, having starred in a 1951 film (played by Gregory Peck) and in a TV series. In fact, it was Mr Forester who encouraged Dudley Pope to start writing fiction, so as a fan of the Ramage novels, I feel I owe it to him to read at least one Hornblower novel!

Perhaps one day, there will be a big budget film adaptation of Ramage…given how expensive filming at sea is, this is only likely if the studios can get hold of a big enough director or star as a box-office guarantee. Until then, I can look forward to finding and reading the remaining 16 Ramage novels.