Well, people, it’s here. Each year, starting around Memorial Day and continuing through the early weeks of summer, we find ourselves knee-deep in a period marked by the release of monstrously large popcorn flicks, movies that show off stars and special effects while raking in the dough. That’s right: it’s the season of the terminal illness drama-comedy. Oh, wait – just kidding. It’s Summer Blockbuster Season! And we’re off to a great start with Marvel’s superhero team up this weekend. Buckle up.
Let’s just get right to it. “The Avengers,” from writer-director Joss Whedon, unites almost every superhero under the Marvel banner in a fight against time and evil, in this weekend’s biggest movie (by far). Whedon, only several weeks out of receiving critical acclaim for his penning of “The Cabin in the Woods,” has created another masterpiece here. Witty, technically brilliant, plausible (grain of salt, friends), and fast-paced without being confusing, the film is an engaging and thrilling ride through Superheroland. Moreover, “The Avengers” remains faithful to its source material while also honoring the comic book and the superhero genre as a whole. Casting is also spot-on, with familiar faces Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson, who are joined by newcomers to the super-gang Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Cobie Smulders. Our review says, “it's not just the best Marvel movie to date (although it is that), and it's not just in the very top tier of superhero movies (although it is), but it's one of the most all-around satisfying summer blockbusters since God-knows-when.” Rotten Tomatoes: 92% Metacritic: 69
The best of Britain (well, at least its actors) convenes in India in John Madden’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The “Shakespeare in Love” director has adapted Ol Parker’s novel, “These Foolish Things,” into a predictable though at times charming film about a group of friends who decide to spend their undirected golden years in an exotic locale. Though the photography of India is perfectly spectacular, simply sketched characters and contrived resolutions abound. Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Sir Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton round out the expats, while “Slumdog Millionaire” breakout star Dev Patel co-stars as the owner of the titular hotel. The actors are largely overqualified in their roles, but their chops manage to lead the film on a sleepily pleasant journey as the aging English people find their way as strangers in a strange land. RT: 76% MC: 60
A fun-loving free spirit (Kate Hudson) is fatally diagnosed with colon cancer and promptly embraces the possibilities she has left in “A Little Bit of Heaven,” directed by Nicole Kassell and written by first-timer Gren Wells. There are many opportunities for self-reflection, meditations on humanity, and even humor here, but the romantic comedy stays true to its formulaic genre roots and avoids any pretenses of gloominess for the first two-thirds of its runtime. Finding true love takes precedence over all, even an accurate depiction of a woman in an increasingly worse state of health. Co-stars include Whoopi Goldberg as God, Peter Dinklage as a male prostitute, and Gael Garcia Bernal as Hudson’s hunky doctor. So much star power and, yet, nowhere to invest it. RT: 5% MC: 15
Dennis Lee’s quirky coming-of-age story, “Jesus Henry Christ,” centers on the curious encounters of a ten-year-old boy genius (Jason Spevack) with indulgent adults and precocious peers as he attempts to figure out his place in the universe. Pretty standard fare, at least when it comes to self-reflective indies about young adults. (Even if he is a mental superstar, this self-aware worldview seems a little advanced for a pre-teen.) Unfortunately, the film fails to create any context for its characters, and we are left better, and better-explained, backstory. Toni Collette, Michael Sheen, and Samantha Weinstein co-star in this underwhelming and poorly written dramedy. Our review admits that Lee “shows a tin-ear for realistic human behavior, and even more woeful incapabilities with punch lines, underlining gags with gory comeuppances or sitcom reaction shots. It would be acceptable, on a marginal level, if the final shot of ‘Jesus Henry Christ’ was a pull-back into outer space, revealing the film existing on an alien planet where this sort of artificial behavior was the norm, but ‘JHC’ is both alien and depressingly earthbound.” RT: 36% MC: 42
Ian Fitzgibbon’s “Death of a Superhero” stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a teenager who puts himself in harm’s way with the hope that he’ll end the drawn-out process of dying from cancer much earlier. This darkness is mediated with intervals of animation that hearken comic book artwork, and a therapist (Andy Serkis) and a new love interest (Aisling Loftus) provide the film’s lessons about loving life, even as the girl prescribes to nihilism. The interludes add a good deal of interest, and well-defined portraits and good acting make it easy to invest in each of the characters. However, though the cast is wonderful, the story is not as successful, and many of its plot elements reek of overused familiarity. The stock high school scenes, in particular, draw attention away from the seriousness of the story, and keep the pain – which should be quite acute here – at a very surface level. RT: 100% MC: 67
“My Way,” from director Kang Je-kyu (“Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War”), is South Korea’s biggest and most expensive movie project to date, and it opens wide this weekend. Set against the backdrop of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Korea, the film follows two competitive runners-cum-soldiers – one Korean and one Japanese – as they fight their way through Mongolia, Russia, Germany, and, finally, Normandy. Thrown into the chaos and horror of war, the initially antagonistic pair finds a bond in survival. The budget ($23 million) makes itself known in this epic: expansive aerial shots, almost 16,000 extras, and wall-to-wall CGI create a number of extremely realistic battle scenes. And yet, all this money can’t save the film from its script, which is so light in its character development that the two-and-a-half-hour story mostly devolves into a series of grisly battles. Our review says, “To a certain degree, suspension of disbelief is a requirement for watching war films: even in the bloodiest and most horrific battle sequences, cinematic pleasure takes precedence over realism. However, that suspension has a window, and ‘My Way’ goes through it and beyond, leaving a wake of bloody CGI trailing behind. In a movie that is so visually right – from costumes to sets to effects – it is highly disappointing to see the script go so wrong.” RT: 9% MC: 30