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

Advertisements

New Releases for the Week of May 1, 2015


Avengers Age of UltronTHE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

(Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, James Spader. Directed by Joss Whedon.

The summer blockbuster season is upon us and what better way to kick it off than with the latest Marvel extravaganza? In this one, the World’s Mightiest Heroes are faced with an artificial intelligence, one that was created to defend the planet if the Avengers weren’t available but one that also decided that the best way to defend the planet was to remove the human parasites. Now up against a foe that may be stronger and smarter than they are, they also must battle their own internal division if they are to save the world.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, featurettes, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)

Cheatin’

(Plymptoons) Jake and Ella are the happiest and most romantic couple in the history of romance, but like all good things it can’t last. A jealous, scheming woman plots to drive a wedge between them, breaking Jake’s heart and sending him off on a succession of loveless trysts. With the help of a disgraced magician, Ella desperately fights to reclaim her lover and find the happiness they are both destined to receive. This played the 2014 Florida Film Festival and is only now getting a theatrical release; you can read my festival review of the film here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Dior & I

(The Orchard) Raf Simons, Marion Cotillard, Anna Wintour, Jennifer Lawrence. The legendary house of fashion that is Christian Dior has a new artistic director who is preparing his very first Haute Couture line for the venerable fashion icon. The pressure is on as we are given a fly-on-the-wall view of the entire creative process, giving us an insight into what it takes to work for one of the great fashion houses of the world.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fashion Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

The Search for General Tso

(Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin. One of the most popular entrees to be served in American restaurants is General Tso’s chicken. Americans eat it up like crazy. But who is General Tso? Who created his namesake dish? And is it even Chinese at all? The answers may surprise you in this documentary guaranteed to make you hungry. This played the Florida Film Festival this year and you can read my review of it here.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Food Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

The Watcher


Keanu Reeves has a love affair with his gun.

Keanu Reeves has a love affair with his gun.

(2000) Thriller (Universal) James Spader, Marisa Tomei, Keanu Reeves, Ernie Hudson, Chris Ellis, Robert Cicchini, Yvonne Niami, Jennifer McShane, Gina Alexander, Rebekah Louise Smith, Joseph Sikora, Jillian Peterson, Michelle Dimaso, Andrew Rothenberg, David Pasquesi, Dana Kozlov, Butch Jerinic, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Rebekah Arthur. Directed by Joe Charbanic

Sometimes, in searching for deeper meanings in a motion picture, we lose sight of the fact that most movies are meant to be just plain fun, and have no ambitions further than that. Of course, there are also the movies that don’t even achieve those modest yet not inconsequential goals.

In this film, Joel Campbell (Spader) is a burned out FBI agent suffering from horrible migraines and worse nightmares. He was chasing a serial killer in Los Angeles, two years prior to when the main plot of this movie commences, getting very close. But as a result of his single-minded pursuit, a woman was burned to death. Haunted by those memories, he is gradually shutting himself away from the world, taking refuge in a squalid apartment in a new city (Chicago), existing on pills and bad Vietnamese food.

But his old pal from Los Angeles (]Reeves) has tracked him down and is up to his old tricks, namely murdering young women. Just to entice Campbell back into the game, he is sending the ex-agent photographs of his potential victims and giving him 24 hours to keep the murder from occurring. A rather predictable cat and mouse game ensues.

Spader was in the midst of taking an abrupt u-turn in his career, going from roles that are rather callow and awkward (Sex, Lies and Videotape) to becoming a surly action hero, in movies like this one and Supernova. Quite frankly, the roles don’t suit him. The soft-spoken Spader comes off nearly as messed up as the killer he’s chasing. Instead of being hard-bitten, he seems merely neurotic. Since then he’s found himself a niche playing the delightfully arch criminal mastermind Red Reddington on the new TV show The Blacklist. Villainy seems to be more his thing.

Then there’s Keanu. A scene early on (which is repeated near the movie’s conclusion) shows oh-so-cool Keanu dancing, gun in hand, to a throbbing industrial beat. It’s quite a pose, and really sums up everything I don’t like about the guy. Not only is his range limited, but he comes off as shallow and self-serving, which roles like this only amplify. Sadly, his limitations haven’t improved much over the years.

Going for The Watcher are some genuinely tense moments when Keanu’s prey is being stalked (and Keanu, mercifully, is off-screen) as time runs out. Also the presence of two of my favorite actors: Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie) and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) help matters though neither one is given nearly enough to do. Fortunately, both of them make regular appearances both on the big and small screens and in much better productions.

The Watcher has moments, but not many. Stylish rather than substantive, the film settles for trying to look hip and appealing to a less-than-discerning audience. If you have higher standards than the average slack-jawed hipster, you should have the sense to skip this one as most did. If you run into it in your Netflix queue, just keep on running.

WHY RENT THIS: You don’t have anything better to do and you’re really, really high.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Keanu. Reeves.

FAMILY MATTERS: Violence, some of it grisly, and a fair amount of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Initially the movie was titled Driven but the studio changed it after Sylvester Stallone announced he was making an auto racing movie of the same name.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.3M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Manhunter

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Little Accidents

Supernova


Angela Bassett takes time out to play a high tech version of Cat's Cradle.

Angela Bassett takes time out to play a high tech version of Cat’s Cradle.

(2000) Science Fiction (MGM) James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Lou Diamond Phillips, Peter Facinelli, Robin Tunney, Wilson Cruz, Eddy Rice Jr., Knox White, Kerrigan Mahan (voice), Vanessa Marshall (voice), Kevin Sizemore. Directed by Walter Hill

By now, virtually any sci-fi movie junkie can tell you the plot of a typical Hollywood space opera without seeing it: A crew of a seen-better-days vessel goes to remote system, finds alien/bad person/person affected by alien object, and brings he/she/it aboard said vessel.

Crew gets offed one by one in gruesome fashion aboard suddenly claustrophobic ship. Brave captain/crewman/strong silent type battles alien/bad person/person affected by alien object and is defeated and assumed to be killed.

Alien/bad person/person affected by alien object stalks comely female. Comely female battles back and does surprisingly well, until a), she blows up vessel with alien/bad person/person affected by alien object inside it, b) she lures alien/bad person/person affected by alien object into airlock with her comeliness and/or gratuitous nudity, then blows it into space, or c) brave captain/crewman/strong silent type comes back from the dead to rescue comely female and TOGETHER they blow up seen-better-days vessel with alien/bad person/person affected by alien object inside it.

No matter what, big things go boom inevitably in Hollywood’s formula for sci-fi. Even in space where sound doesn’t actually travel.

Supernova follows this plan nearly to the letter, as a rescue vessel answers a distress beacon from a remote mining colony. En route to the colony, the captain meets a particularly gruesome end (this one is for Trek fans who yearn to see graphic transporter accidents) and the ship suffers some heavy damage. The rest of the crew meets the sole survivor (Facinelli) of the supposedly abandoned mine, who is the son of a man who was once romantically involved with the ship’s doctor (Bassett).

From the first moment we meet him, he acts suspiciously enough to make Mother Theresa paranoid. Shortly thereafter, all heck starts breaking loose, as delineated in the outline above.

While Supernova is certainly predictable, it does have its moments. There are some gen-u-wine whiz-bang special effects (for its day) and the cast is solid, particularly the nearly unrecognizable James Spader in the taciturn hero role. Robert Forster as the ship’s luckless commander and Lou Diamond Phillips as an amorous crewman also turn in solid performances in a picture that overall doesn’t deserve ’em.

Be warned – Supernova sat on a studio shelf for more than a year before seeing the light of day – never a good sign – and was quickly dumped onto the marketplace during a time of year when new releases are generally few and far between. There IS a reason for such shabby treatment, folks.

I can’t think of many reasons to go rent the movie (and, it appears, neither did the moviegoing public, which stayed away in droves) especially in a theater full of obnoxious, restless teens as Da Queen and I did (at least we got a couple of passes for our trouble). Ah, sweet memories.

Supernova IS a great looking movie, for the few of you who absolutely, positively must see it. Spader is reasonably interesting as an action hero, a radical change from the soft-spoken cerebral sort he usually plays. Still, these are mighty poor excuses to plunk down hard-earned cash on a movie that reminds me of seeing a paint-by-numbers done by a four-year-old hanging in the Louvre.

Obviously I can’t really recommend this other than to those who want to see every big budget sci-fi film ever made. It isn’t completely without redemption, but for the most part you can find a better movie to fill your time with without stretching too hard.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fairly decent special effects. Spader is serviceable as the action hero.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pedantic and predictable. Lapses in believability.

FAMILY MATTERS: The movie has it’s share of violence and action scenes as well as a little bit of sexiness and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Was the first post-Alan Smithee film in Hollywood. For years whenever a director wished his name removed from the credits for whatever reason (normally because he didn’t want to be associated with the final product), the name “Alan Smithee” would be substituted. After the film Burn, Hollywood, Burn: An Alan Smithee Film was released, the name became too well-known and the Directors Guild of America substituted the name “Thomas Lee” for Alan Smithee. Although Walter Hill (himself a last-minute replacement for Geoffrey Wright who departed a few weeks before shooting over a script dispute) directed, the movie was credited to Thomas Lee upon release, the first film with the dubious distinction of doing so.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.8M on a $90M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Womb

Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter