Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain American Express Shield: Don't leave home without it!

Captain American Express Shield: Don’t leave home without it!

(2014) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Gregory St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp, Maximilliano Hernandez, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling, Bernard White, Callan Mulvey, Branka Katic. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

The buzz on the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been intense with fanboys eating their own livers in anticipation of its release. Well, now that it’s finally out, does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America a.k.a. Cap is still trying to adjust to life in the 21st century after having been frozen solid since the Second World War. He keeps a to-do list (which varies depending on which country you’re seeing the film in) that includes cultural touchstones, historic events that took place during his hibernation and things to try that just weren’t available back in 1944. He checks stuff off the list – in between missions for SHIELD to save the world or at least keep it safer.

While rescuing a ship hijacked by pirates Steve and his partner Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) a.k.a. The Black Widow discover some data being uploaded to a satellite array that is heavily encrypted. When he delivers it to Nick Fury (Jackson), the head of SHIELD, all Hades breaks loose. It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been infiltrated and Steve isn’t sure who to trust – Fury, who has lied to him constantly? The Black Widow whose past is shrouded in mystery? Alexander Pearce (Redford), the security council member whom Fury reports to? And what of the Winter Soldier, an equally mysterious assassin who seems to have all of Cap’s strength and agility?

I’m being deliberately vague on the plot simply because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns that decorate this film, although to be honest if you really want to know more detail you can find it elsewhere on the Net. The movie has been described as a superhero movie with a secret identity as a ’70s Cold War espionage thriller. What that doesn’t tell you is that it takes the best elements from both genres and does them up perfectly.

The Russo brothers ratchet up the paranoia and suspense and keep it in the red zone throughout.  Astonishing action sequences are interspersed with expository sequences that will keep you guessing as to who can be trusted – and who can’t. Some of the turncoats in the film will shock longtime followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe although some will make sense upon reflection.

There are still plenty of fans who are uneasy with Evans as the iconic Captain, but he does his best work here, capturing Cap’s uneasiness with the grey areas that SHIELD is dwelling in and having a hard time reconciling his 1944 morality with the moral morass that is 2014. He’s got the build and the athleticism to pull off the fight sequences but he doesn’t pull off the charisma and leadership that I always imagined someone like Steve Rogers would possess. Then again, it’s doubtful that any actor could.

We get to see even more of Jackson as Fury and he shines as you would expect. Johansson also has an expanded role but we really don’t find out a ton about her character which is as you might expect; I get the sense that they are planning a Black Widow feature down the line and will probably explore the character in greater depth then.

Redford is magnificent as Pearce. We don’t get to see a lot of villain roles for Redford but he inhabits this one. Wisely, as most great movie villains do, he doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a hero, saving the world from itself. If you remember his movie Sneakers think of the role as a cross between his role and the villain role played by Ben Kingsley.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Anthony Mackie. He plays Sam Wilson, a decorated paratrooper who is befriended by Rogers and becomes his ally known as the Falcon using a flying suit. His camaraderie with Evans is genuine and the two make a formidable onscreen team. Who knows, maybe a feature starring the Falcon is in the cards down the line.

The Russos chose to use practical effects whenever possible, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of CGI but when they do use it, it’s magnificent. The massive helicarriers look absolutely real as does the Triskelion building that serves as SHIELD’s Washington DC headquarters.

The question is usually with films like this do you need to be fans of the comic books in order to make sense of the goings on? The answer is no, although it would be extremely helpful if you’d seen the preceding Marvel movies, particularly Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Those who are completely unfamiliar with the comics and the previous movies and wish to view this as a stand alone movie, you should be good following most of the action although there will be references whizzing overhead that you just won’t get. Don’t fret; they aren’t there for you. Still, even if you aren’t a comic book geek or a superhero junkie, you’ll find plenty to like here. Definitely one of the best superhero movies ever – and likely to be one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action and suspense – the perfect blending of both. Keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entire movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during some of the expository sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action which means plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice narrating the Smithsonian exhibit for Captain America is Gary Sinese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Impossible

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Front Man

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Uma Thurman checks to make sure her new hairstyle is cutting edge; Logan Lerman doesn't think so.

(20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Jake Abel, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Joe Pantoliano, Melina Kanakaredes. Directed by Chris Columbus

According to ancient Greek mythology, the pantheon of Gods were in reality an incredibly horny bunch who spent a goodly amount of time rutting with humans and producing offspring who inherited some of the powers of the Gods as well as the attributes of humans. These were called demigods and many Greek heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, were of this race. But of course we all know the Greek gods were myths…weren’t they?

Percy Jackson (Lerman) is a high school student who is a little bit…he’s not quite…he’s strange, okay? He can hold his breath far longer than most human beings are capable of and he likes to sit at the bottom of the school swimming pool because he likes to think while he’s underwater, freed of the distractions of the world of the New York City high school he goes to. His only real friend is Grover (Jackson), a young man who walks on crutches. Percy is dyslexic and suffers from ADHD which makes him a hyperactive teenager who can’t read well.

At home, things pretty much suck too. Percy’s mom (Keener), a beautiful woman who has been worn down by life and circumstance, lives in a crummy apartment with her boyfriend Gabe Ugliano (Pantoliano), a foul-smelling pig who treats his mother like dirt. Percy would love to kick Gabe out of his life, but his mother incomprehensibly refuses.

On a school field trip led by the wheelchair-confined Mr. Brunner (Brosnan), Percy is pulled aside by a substitute teacher (Maria Olsen) who turns into this hideous winged monster that Percy later learns is called a Fury and is attacked by the shrieking creature, who demands that Percy turn over “the lightning bolt” to her. Percy has no idea what this means, but the arrival of Mr. Brunner and Grover chase the Fury off.

Of course, Percy is confused about what’s happening but there’s not a lot of time for explanations. Grover, who calls himself “Percy’s protector” accompanies the boy back to his home where Percy’s mom is in the middle of serving a group of Gabe’s poker buddies. Grover tells her that they need to leave and right now. Strangely, she follows his instructions without question, which doesn’t sit well with Gabe who needs someone to fetch the beer. Grover dispatches him with his crutches and the trio gets out of Dodge.

They head for a place known only as “the camp” and almost reach the confines of it when they are attacked by a hideous gigantic bull-like monster called a Minotaur. The boys survive the attack but the Minotaur grabs Percy’s mom, who disappears in flame and smoke.

As it turns out, Percy’s teacher Mr. Brunner runs the camp and as it turns out, he’s actually a centaur named Chiron (the wheelchair was an illusion meant to mask Chiron’s plentitude of horse’s backside). As it also turns out, all the kids in this camp are the human offspring of Gods and humans, and Percy himself is the son of Poseidon (McKidd). The Gods were forbidden contact with their human offspring after they turn six months old, and so deserted their human partners. Gods as deadbeat dads…kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

The big problem is that the lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon in the universe, has been stolen and its owner, Zeus (Bean) thinks Percy is responsible for reasons never explained. Zeus gives Percy 14 days to find the weapon and return it to Zeus at Mt. Olympus or else the Gods would go to war, a war which would devastate the earth and the humans living on it.

Chris Columbus, the man who kicked off the Harry Potter film franchise, is attempting to do the same with the popular young adult book series from Rick Riordan. Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression that this will pull in Potter-like numbers, not is it as good a film as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was.

The writers of the movie made the unilateral decision to make some wholesale changes from the book. Some of these changes were minor but several were fundamental. One of the reasons I think the Potter film franchise did so well is because the filmmakers didn’t make many changes at the insistence of author J.K. Rowling. I can understand skewing the movie to an older audience (more profitable y’see) but much of the charm and the wonder of the book has been cut out as well.

That leaves lavish action sequences and hideous monsters for the most part and these are executed well. Certainly there’s plenty of spectacle here, from the scenes in Hades and Olympus to more earthly locations like Vegas, New York City and the camp. There are plenty of well-known actors showing up here, from Uma Thurman as Medusa (and she does as good a job as anyone with a tangle of hissing digital snakes on her head) to Melissa Kanakaredes as Athena. The odd casting choice was comedian Steve Coogan as Hades – one would think Hades to be a not particularly funny character and in fact he isn’t.

The three leads have to absolutely click for this to succeed and while in some ways they do, they don’t to the extent that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint did in Potter. Following the Potter formula of two guys and one girl at the forefront, Lerman as Percy is a bit bland. Jackson does a fairly good turn as the jive-talking African-American second banana, but the part seems a bit cliché; I would have appreciated him being a little less smart-mouthed and a little more smart. Not mentioned in my synopsis is Daddario as Annabeth, Athena’s daughter who doesn’t show up until the camp sequence. She is a brilliant strategizer and formidable warrior and is there essentially to be Percy’s love interest.

You’ll learn a lot of Greek mythology here and they use it fairly accurately and update it nicely (although in the stories, Medusa was killed by Perseus but appears here quite alive). I liked the Mt. Olympus set especially; it looked a lot like I imagined it. In fact, nearly all of the special effects sequences work magnificently.

The problem is with the script, I think. Lots of plot points are never explained or supported and some just flat-out don’t make any sense. For example, the big one is why is Percy accused of the theft in the first place? According to Zeus’ own law he isn’t aware of his divine parentage; why would he want to steal something that he has no idea of its existence?

All in all, this isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s not a great movie either. As for kick-starting a major tentpole film franchise, I really am skeptical of the future of further Percy Jackson films. I hope I’m wrong, but they’ll need some better writing to really punch it into the popular consciousness. Until then, future Percy Jackson movies seem to be as much myth as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: A very clever use of Greek mythology in a modern setting. The special effects sequences are top notch.  

REASONS TO STAY: There are many plot holes that cause you to wonder if wholesale parts of the script were edited out. Not sure if the trio of young actors playing the leads have what it takes to sustain interest through a multi-movie series.

FAMILY VALUES: The monsters are way too frightening for younger children – you know, the core audience for the books. One family walked out of the theater we were in when their little one became upset at the Fury, and that was only the first monster encountered.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original book, Percy Jackson is 12 years old. In the movie he is depicted as 17 years old.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely some of the big battle scenes and effects sequences should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Coraline