Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Film Review | Paranormal Activity (2009)

Paranormal Activity is one of those films that passed me by almost entirely when it was released. I remember the buzz, I remember the claims of genre redefinition, but in terms of learning anything regarding the film's themes or content, the most I knew was that it employed the "found footage" style. Having finally got round to watching the film, I'm not all that fussed I hadn't seen it sooner.

The film relates the experiences of Katie (Katie Featherstone) and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) as they document strange occurrences in their house, which Katie believes are being caused by a supernatural force that has followed her since childhood.

At its best, Paranormal Activity provides some genuine frights more effectively than many other modern horrors. The scenes which show us the happenings as Katie and Micah sleep in their bedroom are the most chilling, commendably achieved through minimal and simple effects. The use of a handheld camera style throughout is a double-edged sword however; it simply and effectively creates an authentic feel of this being real "home movie" footage, but for anyone whose ever had to watch someone else's camcorder efforts, there are just as many tedious moments as there are compelling ones.

This problem means that Paranormal Activity becomes pretty repetitive around the halfway point. The cyclical use of spooky bedroom footage interspersed with the less interesting daytime activities of Katie and Micah had me losing interest, and made the brief running time of eighty-six minutes feel stretched. One or two more interesting moments, such as a scene with an abandoned ouija board, help to break up the tedium, but these are simply not included often enough.

Hanging the success of your film on two actors alone is also something of a gamble, and whilst the minimal casting is obviously a symptom of the minuscule budget, here it only partially pays off. Katie is an appealing and sympathetic character whom Featherstone manages to imbue with a genuine, likable manner. Micah on the other hand is less successful, often coming across as unnecessarily and unrealistically recalcitrant and basically a bit of an arse. There were several points where I questioned why on earth was still in the relationship with Micah considering the monumental prick he was being. The problem is compounded further by the fact that the film's "found footage" was by and large "filmed" by Micah, meaning we have to put up with his point of view and commentary through the vast majority of the film.

Paranormal Activity therefore comes out as a real mixed bag. When it gets it right, the film is a palpable horror, which is all the more impressive considering the tiny budget. However, the amount of money available doesn't forgive its repetitive and unremarkable nature when not trying to scare you, and scoring one out of two in the cast when you only have two main actors is always going to leave something of a bad taste in the audience's mouth. Despite these faults, Paranormal Activity is still a pleasing entry into the modern horror canon and certainly worth a watch.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

Film Review | Big (1988)

No matter how many films an actor makes, there will always be a handful of films which define their career. In the case of Tom Hanks, there are any number of films in which you could pick out career high points and cultural touchstones. But no matter how many acclaimed performances Hanks has given, and will no doubt continue to give, Big will always have a place in my ultimate Hanks films.

The film sees twelve-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) make a wish on a fortune teller machine called Zoltar to become "big", only to wake up the next morning as an adult. The "big" version of Josh (Hanks), with the help of his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton), must survive in the adult world until he can manage to transform himself back to his childhood self.

Some quick research into '80s cinema shows that Big's high concept is not an entirely original one for the era, with several other child-to-adult transformation or bodyswap films floating around in the years either side of this film's release. Most of those have since sunk almost without trace, and certainly none have been retained with such acclaim and affection as Big. And it's no exaggeration to lay most of the credit for this firmly at the feet of Hanks.

That's not to say that the film isn't highly successful in other ways. The cast are almost universally strong: Elizabeth Perkins is incredibly likable as disenchanted businesswoman Susan who is enamoured with adult Josh's childish personality, eventually becoming his love interest; John Heard also does well as Josh's antagonistic coworker Paul, doing well to successfully flesh out a character who starts out as a fairly one-dimensional counterpoint to Hanks' hero; and credit must also be extended to Rushton, who demonstrates genuine energy and chemistry with Hanks throughout.

But, as stated before, this is Tom Hanks' show through and through. From the first moment the adult version of Josh is on screen to the last, we believe in him completely. Everything from Hanks' body language to the inflections within his voice are perfect throughout. His performance is a consummate success for many reasons, but possibly the most important of all is that Hanks doesn't play Baskin as a boy in a man's body, he simply plays him as a boy. Hanks becomes a child, he just happens to look about thirty.

The other half of Big's brilliance comes from the writing talents of Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg combined with Penny Marshall's direction. Marshall knows exactly how to make the audience not only understand what Hanks' character is feeling, but feel it themselves. Josh's first night away from home, staying in a complete dive of a hotel in the middle of New York City, is one of the film's most emotional scenes where you feel fear just as palpably as Hanks' character. Probably the film's most enduring and iconic image is that of Hanks performing on an oversized foot-operated keyboard alongside his boss Mr. MacMillan (a charming Robert Loggia). How better to demonstrate that Josh is a child in a grown-up world than by having him play beginners' pieces "Chopsticks" and, of course, "Heart And Soul" on a giant piano?

Big isn't perfect. Like I said, the plot is nothing original and there are a handful of times where you have to remind yourself that this is a modern fairytale to accept some of the lucky breaks that Josh gets in his job and his circumstances. The film also misses a beat slightly at the end of the middle act, before picking up the pace and the interest again as things move towards the finale.

But these minor issues can be overlooked thanks to the charm and magic the film is imbued with in so many other ways. Receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance, Big was the first real opportunity Tom Hanks had to show that he was an actor of great range and adaptability; five years later, with a Best Actor win for Philadelphia, Hanks had demonstrated that his abilities first shown off in Big were no fluke.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

Film Review | The Insider (1999)

As a fan of films and the film industry, there are always going to be films that I naturally am attracted to or repelled by, usually due in no small part to the people involved in making them. Everyone has actors and directors whose work generally appeals to them, as well as those who they just don't get on with; Russell Crowe and Michael Mann are two people whose work independently, whilst not going as far as hating, I have struggled to enjoy in the past. So it was with some degree of trepidation that I decided to give The Insider a go; with the former starring and the latter directing, was there any chance I would be able to agree with the immense amount of praise the film had received on release?

The film is a dramatised account of a real life media event of the mid '90s. After being fired from his job at a "big tobacco" company, Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) is contacted by TV producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) to help him decipher information he has received on the tobacco industry. Wigand's involvement with Bergman goes much further, however, to the point of Bergman working to have him featured on the TV show 60 Minutes to blow the whistle on many of the questionable practices within the tobacco industry. But Wigand's former employers won't simply allow this to happen without causing both men problems.

There's an awful lot to like about The Insider. The feel of the film is polished and highly crafted throughout, with a solid script at its core. Mann manages to create an authentic, almost timeless feel to the story - whilst the events happen in the late 20th Century, the ideas and issues tackled could apply to any time since the dawn of mass media - and I had less issue with his style direction here than I have in other films he has made. That said, Mann still chooses to ruin a handful of shots by opting for a "shaky" handheld camera style which felt out of place and did nothing but distract me from the story being told.

I wasn't aware until after watching the film that Crowe had been nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Wigand and, to be honest, I was a little surprised. That's not to say his performance wasn't good. Crowe manages throughout most of the film to imbue the character with the necessary pathos and suggestion of varying degrees of instability, but there were also times where I found his performance to be just good enough, and not what I'd call Oscar-worthy at any point throughout.

Pacino is reliably strong, bringing a tenacity to Bergman that is both believable and satisfying throughout the film. That said, this is not Pacino at his very best; at times he feels as though he is holding back, with only a couple of slow-burning rants to enjoy throughout the film's two-and-a-half hour running time. In a role such as this, Pacino could never have been anything less than great, but measured against his own back catalogue his performance here never threatens to be a defining one.

Worthy of mention in amongst a solid supporting cast is Christopher Plummer, who inhabits the role of Mike Wallace with a thick skin and constant fire in his eyes, outperforming both Crowe and, on several occasions, even Pacino.

And then there is the film's length. I've read other reviewers suggest that the near 150 minutes fly by, but I certainly didn't find this. The film is too long by around half an hour. Where that time could be removed from is debatable, but I felt that the opening act slightly lacked pace and that the final act trundled to a halt a little too much, rather than being brought to a controlled conclusion. It may be that Mann felt that he needed to include everything shown here to represent the true life events, but there is evidence here that he should have been more focused on creating a tight piece of cinema than a comprehensive document of all the events.

Despite what surely seems like a great deal of criticism, The Insider is undeniably a very good film, and almost certainly the film of Mann's that I've enjoyed watching the most. It's a film not without fault, but still a film of quality and craft and a fine example of a contemporary corporate and media thriller. Will it make me a convert of Mann and Crowe? Probably not, although I'll most likely be slightly more open to their work in the future. To me, The Insider is not the near-perfect piece of cinema many hailed it as at the time of its release, but it is certainly well made and worthwhile.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Film Review | The Guard (2011)

Four years ago, I walked into my local cinema to watch a film starring Brendan Gleeson and directed by someone with the surname McDonagh. I didn't know much about the film, but was blown away by it, mainly because it delivered much more than I expected from the little I did know. That film was In Bruges. Four years later, The Guard also stars Gleeson and is also directed by a McDonagh (this time John Michael, brother of Martin who helmed In Bruges), and so will therefore unavoidably undergo comparison with the earlier film. I certainly had my great enjoyment of In Bruges in my head as I pressed 'play'. But the comparison is likely in the long term to do the film very few favours; The Guard deals with similar themes, from a similar Irish perspective and with a similar blackly comic tone, but John Michael never reaches the heights of his brother's film.

Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a garda (Irish police officer) with unorthodox methods and whose morally questionable social pursuits include taking drugs and hiring prostitutes. When FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) comes to Boyle's town to investigate a gang of drug smugglers, the two unwillingly end up working together.

The cast is The Guard's strongest feature, with Gleeson reliably excellent in a typically quirky and rough-edged role that he is quickly becoming known for. Boyle is quite similar to Ken, Gleeson's character from In Bruges, in that he has his own set of moral codes by which he lives his life; whilst we don't warm to Boyle straight away, we quickly come to respect him and his way of life. Cheadle is also strong as Boyle's counterpoint as a very authentic-feeling Bureau agent, managing to stay believably straight-laced without straying into Hollywood stereotypes. The supporting cast collectively do well, with Mark Strong putting in a particularly good effort as one of the drug smugglers without a huge amount of screen time.

McDonagh's script and direction earmark him as a talent in both comedy and drama, as well as action towards the film's conclusion; where he is less successful is in blending these elements together in the right way. In isolation, there are scenes which put across genuine humour and emotion very well, but when these elements are considered as a whole things just don't quite mesh at several points throughout. I also found the drug-smuggling plot a little uninteresting on a few occasions, lacking in a meaty element or twist to make it anything more than your average crime story seen umpteen times before in gangster films.

The Guard's key weakness, ultimately, is that it isn't In Bruges. It tries to do an awful lot of similar things, and whilst it does many of them well, it never does any of them quite as well as the earlier film. That's not to say The Guard is a weak film; on the contrary, I enjoyed it a great deal. It's just a shame that one McDonagh's film starring Gleeson will undoubtedly be compared to the other, and in this comparison The Guard will almost always come in second place.


Monday, 21 May 2012

Film Review | Soul Men (2008)

Soul Men is precisely the sum of its parts, and in that respect it's really quite lucky, as without Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac in the lead roles this would undoubtedly have sunk without a trace. Would it have deserved to? Possibly not. But whilst the rest of the film isn't awful by any means, it regularly feels no more than ordinary.

Jackson and Mac are Louis Hinds and Floyd Henderson respectively, two retired soul musicians who haven't spoken to each other in over twenty years. When Marcus Hooks (John Legend), the former lead singer of their group, dies, the two uncomfortably reunite to take part in a memorial concert for him, travelling cross-country together by car to do so.

Jackson and Mac pretty much make the film what it is, with performances which are solid if not exactly challenging for them in many respects - Jackson is essentially a toned down version of Ordell Robbie, his character from 1997's Jackie Brown, and Mac is for the most part his own stand-up persona. There is chemistry between the two, with Floyd and Louis' banter going back and forth pleasingly throughout the film. The soul music performances are also enjoyable, and an impromptu number by the pair stranded by the side of a desert highway with the car radio turned up is one of the film's highlights.

The music used throughout the film is also a strength, with the original compositions pleasingly faithful to the soul and Motown era and the other songs on the film's soundtrack selected with care.

Story-wise, the film is pretty simple, lacking depth in a number of areas. There are a couple of poor choices - an attempt to develop one character into a more credible villain, for example, falls flat on its face. Things feel like they run out of steam as we head into the final act, with some muddled plotting and actions that seem either out of character or just plain stupid.

The key issue is that of character depth and development, in that both are woefully lacking. Floyd and Louis are supposed to have ignored each other through hatred for over two decades, and yet the transition to them cooperating feels far too simplistic. Both characters don't really go anywhere from start to finish either; they're both pretty much the same at the end of the film as they were are the start, just in a different geographical location. 

Characters in the supporting cast are about as deep as a paddling pool with a leak, receiving even less development than the two leads. When Cleo (Sharon Leal) joins the two men on their journey after they rescue her from a life of spousal abuse, her transition to backing singer is almost insulting in its ease. Others, such as Adam Herschman's Phillip, just feel one-note and lazy.

Despite these faults, the film is still enjoyable and entertaining, thanks mostly to the natural ability of Jackson and Mac. Ironically for a film entitled Soul Men, it's a fundamental lack of soul in the story and the characters that ultimately drag it down.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Film Review | Cemetery Junction (2010)

When watching Cemetery Junction, it's often easy to forget that this is a film penned and directed by the same duo who brought us The Office. The feel of the movie is very different in many ways to what Gervais and Merchant have  created before. But there are key similarities between their first film written together and their earlier work. At times these pleasingly work just as well as they have done on the small screen; at others, they are nothing short of the film's downfall.

Set in Reading in the 1970s, Cemetery Junction follows the life of Freddie (Christian Cooke) as he starts a new job as an assurance salesman for Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes), father of his school sweetheart Julie (Felicity Jones). Whilst he strives to earn the respect of his new employer and colleagues, he also tries to keep the more carefree friends with whom he has grown up.

The film's authenticity in presenting a believable recreation of '70s Britain is commendable, as each detail down to the colour palette chosen by Gervais and Merchant gives the film a genuine nostalgic feel whilst at the same time not feeling cheesy or gimmicky. Much of the film's most successful humour is gleaned from it's temporal setting. After catching Freddie listening to a classical music LP, Bruce (a superb Tom Hughes) lambasts his best mate: "stop listening to music made by poofs. Stick on some Elton John".

But whilst there are several things Gervais and Merchant get very very right, there are also a few too many that they noticeably do not. Although the majority of the cast give solid performances, I felt throughout that the story we were watching - Freddie's - wasn't the most interesting that could have been offered. His is a pretty by-the-numbers coming-of-age tale with an ending that feels a bit too "happily ever after" to fit with the tone of the story that's preceded it, and Cooke's performance also feels a little lacking in substance at several points. Bruce's life, here only dipped into, would have been significantly more compelling if fleshed out as the film's main plot and, driven by Hughes' charged and enigmatic performance, would have produced something superior to what is offered.

The film's biggest failing is perhaps Gervais himself. There are several trademark Gervais-style exchanges throughout the film, usually between members of Freddie's family, which are somewhat at odds with the more realistic feel of the film. Gervais' performance as Freddie's factory-worker father just doesn't work. He only has a handful of scenes, but they drag the film down with the comedian giving a lazy and amateurish performance that just doesn't ring true to what was needed from the role. Gervais in fact doesn't even act; he is just Gervais, with his lines sounding just like something from his podcast collaborations with Merchant and Karl Pilkington.

Gervais' casting of himself in the film smacks of arrogance; casting a different actor in the part, or even reducing the character's role in the story, would have assisted the film overall a great deal. It's a shame that Gervais and Merchant's potentially most mature and well-crafted work to date is ultimately a casualty of Gervais' ego. Cemetery Junction, with a few key tweaks, could have been an excellent comedy-drama. As it is, it is simply good but flawed.


Monday, 7 May 2012

Film Review | YellowBrickRoad (2011)

I'm a staunch advocate of including only as much exposition as is necessary in films. Some of my favourite films, such as Mulholland Drive or Primer, in fact go out of their way to limit the exposition and make the finished product feel all the more expertly crafted. But there's a difference between allowing the audience to find their own way through your film, and simply making them feel like they haven't got the first clue what's going on. If only someone had taken the time to sit down and explain this to the makers of YellowBrickRoad.

The film explains through an opening title card that all the inhabitants of the town of Friar, New Hampshire one day in 1940 inexplicably abandoned the town and walked along an unmarked trail into a nearby woodland. Some were found frozen to death, others mutilated, but many were never found at all. In the present day, after finally securing the information he needs to complete an investigation into the strange occurrence, writer Teddy (Michael Laurino) leads a group along the same trail, where they begin to encounter their own weird experiences.

It's hard to find a genuine redeeming feature of YellowBrickRoad. The premise holds merit, with the mixture of history and legend giving the potential for something worthwhile. This potential soon evaporates, however, as it becomes painfully obvious that neither the cast nor the writers have a clue what they're doing. The performances are wooden and the script amateurish, scattered with weak and pretentious attempts at creepy dialogue. The characterisation is wafer thin to the point that even if I had cared who any of these people were, I'd be hard pressed to tell you their motivations or how they relate to each other.

What story we start with is abandoned around thirty minutes in, leaving an hour of flat, boring characters wandering around the woods. Supernatural elements and surreal sequences are introduced, but are never developed or explained in any meaningful way. By the time you've reached the closing scenes, you're left with so many unanswered questions that you'll feel cheated out of the last hour and a half of your life.

YellowBrickRoad is best summed up by looking at its title, a reference of course to 1939's The Wizard Of Oz. The nods to the earlier film in this one are scarce, sloppy and ultimately irrelevant throughout, which begs the question why the film is so titled in the first place. Everything about YellowBrickRoad makes about as much sense as the title. You'd probably have more fun beating yourself around the head with a brick, yellow or otherwise, than subjecting yourself to this garbage.


Sunday, 6 May 2012

Film Review | Life As We Know It (2010)

The most popular way to freshen up the rom com formula these days is to either add in a twist that would usually appear in a serious drama film, or add in a baby. Life As We Know It does both. It should, mathematically speaking, therefore be twice as freshened up as the next freshened up rom com. For the most part, it's not.

Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Messer (Josh Duhamel) are the best friends of married couple Peter and Alison (Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks) but share a mutual dislike of each other. When Peter and Alison are killed in a car crash, Holly and Messer are named as legal guardians for their one-year-old daughter Sophie. As they take on the task of raising Sophie, they have to come to terms not only with living their new lives, but living with each other.

Having Heigl as co-lead is the film's main point of strength, being as she is a likeable and talented presence; unfortunately here she comes across as something of a one-note character thanks to the flat scripting and direction. This is further exacerbated by the lack of chemistry between her and Duhamel's character, who also provides another of the film's key problems. Messer comes across as entirely unlikeable for a sizeable chunk of the film. One of the first things we see him do - during the opening credits no less - is to pretend to drop newborn Sophie as a joke. At best a heavy-handed attempt to show Messer as a poor candidate for fatherhood; at worst, a cheap and tasteless joke which assumes that child neglect is amusing.

In fact, a lot of Life As We Know It's humour comes from this assumption, which produces a fair few uncomfortable misses. Thankfully there are a handful of sequences that are actually quite funny, such as one where Holly and Messer wind down by watching some of Sophie's kids' TV programmes after eating a batch of "special" brownies. But even these provide short-lived relief as the film continually swings sharply in tone, meaning any uplifting feeling is usually dampened down by something depressing happening.

The film trundles towards its inevitable conclusion, taking about half an hour too long to do so, with Holly and Messer helped along the way by the one-dimensional neighbours who crop up as a collective every so often, and what little character development there is feeling shoved in hamfistedly when the writer realised the story couldn't carry on if one of the characters didn't change in some way. 

In essence, Life As We Know It doesn't make many more mistakes that your average rom com. The main issue is the extra elements that are thrown in - mourning young friends, unexpectedly raising someone else's child - and the fact that director Greg Berlanti really doesn't know what he wants to do with them in terms of tone or their function within the story. The result is a film that leaves you feeling just as unsure as to how you should take it, and that is ultimately underdeveloped and unsatisfying.


Saturday, 5 May 2012

Film Review | Avengers Assemble (2012)

Definitely a candidate for "film with most prequels", Avengers Assemble (or simply The Avengers if you don't live in the UK, apparently retitled to distinguish it from the less-than-reviled unrelated 1998 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman) had an awful lot of build-up, anticipation and hype to live up to. There were any number of ways the film could have misfired, and should it do so it could have been a fatal blow for Marvel Studios, as pretty much all of their recent output has been building up to this one film. Thankfully, AA manages to just about live up to those incredibly high expectations.

The film sees Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a.k.a. Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and, er, Thor, come together for the first time as superhero team The Avengers to take on Asgardian baddie (and Thor's brother) Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as he leads the other-dimensional Chitauri in an invasion of Earth.

The key to AA's success is not just in bringing together four well-known superheroes with their own discrete franchises - films such as Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason have proven that simply throwing successful characters together does not automatically a successful movie make - but that it brings them together in such a comprehensively successful way. The way in which writer and director Joss Whedon has woven a seamless tapestry of the Old World stylings of Thor, the World War Two era characteristics of Captain America, and the modern day bearings of Iron Man and The Hulk (the last two also coming with their own idiosyncrasies) is impressive in itself. The whole thing just works, and all the better because Whedon is acutely aware of the ridiculousness of some of the concepts with which he is working. Steve Rogers' outfit is always going look the silliest, Thor is never going to slip unnoticed into 21st Century America, and Hulk can't help but be a not-so-jolly green giant. But Whedon works this to his advantage, gleaning some of the film's funniest moments from it. "You don't know what you're dealing with" says Thor to Iron Man when they first meet. "Shakespeare In The Park?" Stark quips back faster than a lightning bolt from Mjolnir.

Whedon's script isn't light on comedy, with moments throughout which aren't just amusing, but downright laugh-out-loud funny. The exchanges between the four superheroes and their conflicting mentalities produces some incredibly human humour, perfectly crafted by Whedon's razor-sharp writing. The director also knows his way around physical humour, equally well-crafted and perfectly placed within the film. One exchange of blows between Hulk and Loki is especially memorable for all the right reasons.

The performances from the whole cast are a delight. Downey Jr., Evans and Hemsworth slip back into their already established characters pleasingly well. Ruffalo deserves huge credit for making Bruce Banner/Hulk his own character after two misfired attempts at bringing the rage monster to the big screen in the last decade. Ruffalo largely ignores the character created by Edward Norton in the most recent 2008 film, and to good effect; his Banner is a paranoid genius haunted by the alter-ego he refers to only as "the other guy", and that Ruffalo establishes a character of depth and sympathy so quickly within the film reaffirms him as a genuine cinematic talent who has until recently often gone overlooked.

It's also important that Avengers Assemble never becomes about one superhero and his sidekicks. It would have been very easy to make this "Iron Man 3 (featuring Thor, Hulk and Cap)" considering Downey Jr.'s popularity and Iron Man having had two films to the other members' one (or in the case of Ruffalo's version of the Hulk, arguably none). But each plays an equal part, feeling as though each has not only their own strengths, but also shortcomings. Each character also feels as though they develop throughout the film, with each becoming more rounded as they develop as a team.

The supporting cast cannot be overlooked here either. Samuel L. Jackson is predictably excellent as Nick Fury, fleshing out a character who has been limited largely to cameos in Marvel Studios' output thusfar. Tom Hiddleston brings menace and insanity to Loki, transforming him into a genuine evil force to be reckoned with, something I feel he fell short of when introduced in 2011's Thor. Clark Gregg returning as Agent Phil Coulson is a joy in all his scenes, a wonderfully human counterpoint to the superpowered multi-dimensional larger-than-life characters surrounding him. Black Widow is surely one of the most well-developed female characters in a superhero film, making her introduction in Iron Man 2 feel somewhat one-note, thanks here to Scarlett Johansson's pleasing performance and Whedon's smart scripting and direction. Her relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is established well and is hopefully something that will be developed further in future Marvel Studios outings.

Avengers Assemble is not without a handful of imperfections. The good versus evil story is a little too by-the-numbers, and the Chitauri led by Loki feel somewhat generic at times. But these are minor niggles in what is a superbly crafted superhero action film. With a run time of nearly two-and-a-half hours the film could have become a real slog, but I enjoyed every minute. The action sequences are brilliantly realised, never feeling overly busy or confusing (take note, Michael Bay) - one particular unbroken tracking shot within the final battle taking in all four superheroes battling against Loki's invading forces is truly breathtaking.

Avengers Assemble
 is ultimately as good as anyone could have hoped the film would realistically be, and deserves to go down in cinematic history as one of the best comic book films ever made. It's equal to the sum of its parts, and the parts within it are pretty damn awesome. It takes the best parts of the films which led up to it and combines them together in a genuinely wonderful way.

But perhaps, most of all, the film is a success because it doesn't try to be something it's not. Giving the characters here a gritty and realistic reboot would most likely produce a film of pretension and silliness. The closest we've seen to that in the Marvel Universe is 2008's Incredible Hulk, which for the most part just didn't work. Christopher Nolan proved in 2008's The Dark Knight that taking a comic book character, his allies and adversaries, into a quasi-real-world setting can produce something truly outstanding; Whedon in 2012 has proven that it's possible to come very close to that level of success whilst at the same time wearing your fantastical comic book credentials as proudly as Captain America wears his star-spangled suit.