July 26, 2012 Heroes vs Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Posted in Art, Batman, China, Comics, Cultural Mining, 艾未未, Hotdocs, Movies, Super-heroes, Uncategorized, US, 中国艺术 by CulturalMining.com on July 27, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM,  looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference..

People like to watch superheroes and supervillains, whether its on the big screen or on the news screen – media gobble up anything in the news that seems horrific, and when it can be tied to movies or TV – like the recent shooting disaster in Colorado, it’s media gold. But what about a real hero? Those are harder to find. Do we give as much attention to heroes as villains, and what about real heroes vs comic book superheroes?

This week I’m talking about two action movies about superheroes trying to save Manhattan from being blown up, and a documentary about a real guy, an artist, who’s trying to stop China from imploding.

The Avengers

Dir: Joss Whedon

OK, NASA is building a machine called the tesseract that is powered by this bluish glowing cube about yea big. But a skinny goth with a glowing, golden sceptre — the Norse god Loki — puts the scientists under mind-control and zooms off somewhere to open a hole in the universe that would let an army of slimy metallic evil creatures from outer space take over the world.

So a group of people with special powers are brought together by a secret US government agency — SHIELD — to fight supervillain Loki. There’s Thor, the God of Thunder with a heavy hammer, Bruce Banner, the scientist who might turn into the Hulk at any moment, Ironman, a rich dude who’s also an inventor; Captain America, an earnest military guy from the 1940s who wears an ice-ballet stars and stripes leotard and carries a super-strong shield; and the black widow Natasha, a former Soviet spy who now fights bad guys everywhere. They all get loaded onto this mammoth airborne battleship the size of a small city. And, for some reason, Loki’s locked up into a glass cage on board.

Since they’re superheroes, they get into a bunch of fights: Thor vs Ironman, Hulk vs Thor, etc etc… until they finally get it together to fight the real baddies. But of course Loki and his hypnotized minions are going to stop them. Will the good guys beat the bad guys? Or will the earth crumble, taken over by Loki’s alien allies? Uh… guess.

This is a pretty goofy movie but it’s directed by Joss Whedon so you know it’s going to be watchable with lots of collapsing buildings falling apart just behind someone running full speed toward the camera. Cool. And the space aliens — who look like massive flying trilobite armadillos with sharp teeth – get in some amazing urban disaster scenes, smashing through glass office towers. The big stars – Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansen, Samuel Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki — all seem to be having a good time.

And the bits of sardonic humour thrown in here and there, helps it a lot. Not great fun, but at least good fun once all the fighting starts.

The Dark Knight Rises

Dir: Christopher Nolan

As in The Avengers, a super-villain, this one called Bain, — a big guy with a mask over his mouth — descends on Manhattan, aka Gotham City, because he wants to take over, seize Wayne Enterprises’ secret energy-generating device (with WMD potential), and then kill everybody. Why? Doesn’t really matter. Because he’s a bad guy, I guess.

But billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is in retirement, his company running dry, and the forlorn orphans he used to help are left abandoned. Meanwhile, in a French Revolution-style takeover, they storm the Bastille letting the world’s worst criminals out of jail, a Robespierre-type judge sentences everyone to death or exile, and the NYPD are all locked up in a collapsed underground tunnel. Who will save everyone? It takes the combined efforts of a tough, young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a slinky cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) to finally get Batman out of his funk to fight the bad guy. But Bain locks him up in a pit in central Asia with no way out. Oh no!

I dunno about this one. Two hours and forty minutes later we get to see the ending, find out who will triumph and what is the villain’s secret. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid movie. The effects are good enough, but never seem to be justified – they’re evoked seemingly at random. Great actors — like Tom Hardy as Bain and Christian Bale as Batman – spend the movie masked, with distorted voices. Why bother? They could have meat puppets doing the same thing. What a waste. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are a bit better, as their characters actually get to develop, but in general, this movie was a humourless drudge. Good enough to watch, but not worth dying for (this is not meant to downplay the terrible shooting at the premier in Colorado).

Incidentally, the scariest part for me was when someone walked past my aisle seat, with a loud, sudden pattapattapatta clacking sound. Everyone jumped and stared and a security guard came running into the theatre to investigate, but it turned out to be just some guy spilling reese’s pieces all over the steps.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Dir: Alison Klayman

But what about a real hero?

Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is a Chinese artist and photographer who studied in NY in the 80s and 90s and is now an international art celeb. He helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium and his photography – he’s famous for giving the finger to all the world’s great buildings — and installations are widely known. And he has impeccable credentials: his dad was Ai Qing (艾青), the poet who was jailed by the Nationalists, and who joined the Communist Party and participated in Mao Zedong’s famous Talks on Art and Culture at Yen’an. That’s major historical creds in postwar China.

But Ai Weiwei doesn’t like everything going on in China these days. So when a poorly designed school building collapses in Sichuan, killing hundreds of kids, his art turns political – after painstaking research he creates a memorial listing all the names of the dead. But this is taken as a possible insult to the the authorities. He is arrested and beaten up by a violent cop known only by his badge number. So begins his odyssey, fighting the powers that be, and trying to get justice using his art, his writing, the media, lawsuits, fighting in court, and filming everything, everywhere he goes.

He is one of the signers of Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, and generally makes a name for himself, not just as an installation and photographic artist, but as a leading dissident — a sort of a Chinese Michael Moore, but one with deep artistic and cultural capabilities.

This documentary (that opened this year’s Hotdocs) is very important as an historical record. While it may be a case of the filmmaker being in the right place at the right time – It’s mainly shot with a handheld camera allowed to trace and document his life: in the galleries, his encounters with the police, his family life, including time with his son (from an unseen mother, not his wife).

He comes across as a bit unlikeable – not a smiling panda, but an irascible, sometimes obnoxious stubborn man. But one who sticks to his principles (freedom of speech, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, etc). AI Weiwei has had his studio destroyed by the government, he’s been thrown in a secret prison — allegedly for tax reasons – and fined millions of dollars, but he hasn’t stopped fighting. Really interesting and worth seeing if you’re interested in China, politics, or art.

The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are playing now, check your local listings; and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens today in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my website culturalmining.com.

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