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

Welcome to Me


Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

(2014) Comedy (Alchemy) Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Thomas Mann, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Kulap Vilaysack, Mitch Silpa, Anelia Dyoulgerova, Joe Roland, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace, Rose Abdoo, Hannah Chodos, Sabra Williams, Charlotte Rabbe, Shanna Strong. Directed by Shira Piven

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all like to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery. Buy a new house, a new car, a new boat; pay off all our debts, take a fabulous vacation, maybe give some back to the community or to charity. I’m fairly sure most of us would not have buying ourselves our own talk show on the radar.

Alice Klieg (Wiig) ha s just won the California lottery. Up until now she’s led a kind of a drab existence although that’s largely drug-induced. Not the fun kind even – the prescription kind. She has a borderline personality disorder and needs meds to stabilize her moods which have a tendency to get savage without warning. She mostly keeps to herself and watches VHS videotapes of Oprah shows, which she has largely memorized.

So she says goodbye to her pills, much to the objections of her therapist (Robbins), puts herself on a diet low on glucose, high on protein and low on carbohydrates which she pronounces “carbohydrants.” With not a lot to do in Palm Desert (her home), she moves into a hotel room at the local Native American casino and finds herself fascinated by a product that she sees on a local shopping network that seems to fit into her dietary needs. She and her best friend Gina (Cardellini) get tickets to a studio audience for an infomercial huckstering the product and feeling empowered by her recent success, manages to get some camera face time. Flush with the success of that, she informs the station owner Rich (Marsden) that she has an idea for a talk show that she’s willing to pay for, starring herself with the subject of…herself.

While the acerbic director Dawn (Cusack) thinks that this is a monumentally bad idea, Rich is desperate for money to save the station, much to his brother Gabe’s (Bentley) chagrin. He was the face of the product that attracted Alice’s attention and now is attracting Alice’s attention for a whole other reason.

Alice, who has never had any sort of filter and blurts out whatever comes into her head (and reads prepared statements when she wants to get something across) has begun sleeping around with whoever catches her fancy. On the show she makes her grand entrance in a swan boat-like vehicle (she has a thing for swans, which decorate her house) and mostly talks about her diet, and re-enacts incidents from her life that bother her to this day, like someone stealing from her make-up bag on a ski trip, or a former friend who told others in high school that Alice had some mental issues. When provoked, Alice throws things or goes into screaming rages.

As the show continues to run and gets a kind of viral success, Alice begins to spin out of control. She is able to afford to buy what she wants which continues to feed into her disease. Her self-absorption becomes almost maniacal and even the loyal Gina is horrified and can’t cope with the new Alice. She is re-inventing herself, but is it into a person she truly wants to be?

Wiig’s post-SNL career has been largely of characters like this, although Alice is a bit of an extreme. She excels at characters who are just a bit off-beat, who march to their own drummer and who aren’t just ordinary folks. She has also been choosing of late indie films that allow her to really display her best work, roles that are really in her wheelhouse. In many ways, this is her best performance on the big screen, even more so than her work in the blockbuster hit Bridesmaids which essentially set her up as a star leading actress. Even as Alice becomes more unlikable, she remains sympathetic for the most part as we know she doesn’t really control her own actions.

This is one of two films I’ve seen at this year’s Florida Film Festival that has at their center a person with emotional/mental issues that make the conscious decision to stop taking their medication. It is played to much more comedic effect here and less to the chilling effect it is in Gabriel which might make those who are advocates for those who have issues to take pause; however, it should be said I didn’t get a sense that either Wiig or the filmmakers were making fun of Alice but showing the side of her that might provoke an audience to laugh. Certainly I went in thinking that I was going to be cringing more than laughing and ended up doing more of the latter than the former.

The movie starts out strong and kinda peters out near the end. A strong supporting cast, particularly Cusack who has become for my money one of the strongest character actresses working today, helps keep the movie interesting throughout, although some of the characters are a bit cliche. At times it feels like the writers had stretched out the movie to make it feature length.

Still in all, this is solidly entertaining. There’s some subtle – okay, not so subtle – commentary on our obsession with fame and of our consumerist, self-involved society which is quite welcome but for the most part shooting fish in a barrel. What it isn’t is an issue movie on mental health. Wiig remains an acquired taste for some, mainly because the roles she tends to go for are pretty quirky (and none more than this one) but when she’s on as she is here, she’s as good as any comic actress out there. For those who want to avoid the crowds at the big summer movies, this makes for a nice alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Wiig gives a stellar performance. Much funnier than I expected. Great supporting performances, particularly from Cusack.
REASONS TO STAY: Falls apart near the end. A couple of cliche characters in the mix. Some of the material feels a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, some graphic nudity, a fair amount of foul language and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shira Piven is actor Jeremy Piven’s older sister; the actress who plays Alice’s mother in the film is actually Shira and Jeremy Piven’s mom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Me Three Times

Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages

Super


Super

Rainn Wilson is getting tired of all the Dwight Schrute cracks.

(2010) Comedy (IFC) Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Sean Gunn, Stephan Blackehart, Don Mac, Linda Cardellini, Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Rob Zombie (voice), Zach Gilford, Mikaela Hoover. Directed by James Gunn

Sometimes we all feel powerless against the forces conspiring to make our lives miserable. All of us wish at one time or another, for the power to right wrongs, to punish the wicked and maybe even protect the weak. It is what inspires comic books and daydreams.

Frank D’Arbo (Wilson) has more reason than most to feel downtrodden. The product of a strict (some would say abusive) religious upbringing, he works as a line cook in a big metropolitan area. His sad sack looks and somewhat dorky demeanor have made him the target for ridicule.

He does have a wife, Sarah (Tyler) that he damn near worships. She’s a recovering drug addict and his marriage to her is one of the two happiest moments of his life (the other is the day he pointed a cop in the direction a purse snatcher ran).

However there is rain on his horizon. His wife has fallen off the wagon and is on heroin, thanks to the drug dealer Jacques (Bacon) that she is now living with. Frank is disconsolate. He can’t sleep, he is moody and irritable and when he discovers what Jacques is he gets beaten up for his troubles.

Apparently Frank has had visions all his life and he has one now; one in which his skull is peeled off and his brain is touched by the finger of God (voiced by Rob Zombie – perhaps the coolest thing in the movie you don’t know you’re experiencing). In that vision, a cable access low-rate Christian superhero named the Holy Avenger (Fillion) tells Frank he has a destiny. Frank believes that destiny is to be a superhero.

Of course, it’s tough to be a superhero without a power but that never stopped Batman or the Green Arrow, so Frank settles on a pipe wrench. He pieces together a costume for himself and voila the Crimson Bolt is born. He hangs out in alleys, waiting for crime to happen (which apparently is a long wait), but when crime happens, he swings into action with his wrench. At first, he goes after obvious criminals but soon his image of absolute justice begins to blur a bit as he attacks line jumpers and car keyers.

He also reluctantly takes on a sidekick – the nerdy geeky clerk at a comic book store, Libby (Page). She’s enthusiastic and a little socially awkward but she quickly figures out what’s going on, especially after Frank gets shot after an abortive attempt on rescuing Sarah. Libby takes on the guise of Boltie and it becomes real evident real fast that she’s very attracted to Frank, particularly in his Crimson Bolt persona – but he still believes he’s very married, although Libby is far too horny to pay attention to such niceties.

Deciding to arm themselves better, Frank gets another vision that brings him to believe that ready or not, they must rescue Sarah now, which turns out to be true since Jacques’ deal with Mr. Range (Mac) apparently includes the sexual favors of the drugged Sarah. Storming the fortress-like ranch of Jacques with well-armed and trained thugs, can the Crimson Bolt and Boltie hope to prevail?

This looks like a superhero spoof on the surface, but it’s far darker than the average spoof. Gunn has created a very realistic look at what superheroes would look like in the real world; there is plenty of blood and viscera here. That might put off the squeamish or the easily offended.

There is something here to offend everybody in that sense, whether it’s the excessive and realistic-looking gore of the wrench assaults, to the somewhat squishy rape of Frank to a vision in vomit. The movie is unrated and probably would have gotten an NC-17 had it been submitted for one although I might have given it an R myself.

Frank is a character not unlike the one Wilson plays on “The Office.” Like Dwight Schrute, Frank isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and he doesn’t quite get that he is the joke. He’s uptight and a little bit on the humorless side, but Frank is a little nicer than Dwight deep down I think.

Page is awesome as the ADHD Libby who turns out to be even more psychotic than Frank. She looks awfully good in her Boltie duds, and she captures the character’s frenetic energy and also her deep-seated need to be somebody, squealing “I always knew I’d be on television” when a police sketch of her and Frank appear on the local news. She can laugh maniacally when she kills a bad guy, but she also seems to have insecurities that Frank feeds into but also bolsters her from in a weird way. It’s a far more complicated role than it looks.

Bacon is great fun as the oily but ultimately evil Jacques. He is smarmy to the point of being a used car salesman, but at the same time he takes delicious fun at testing his new product on his girlfriend. He’s in the great tradition of comic book baddies – he knows he’s bad but he just doesn’t care.

Part of the joke of the movie is that EVERYBODY in it is psychotic or neurotic to one degree or another – except for Sarah, the junkie and even she is an addict. The line between good and bad is blurred to the point that it’s extinct and if we can’t see it, how can a schlub like the Crimson Bolt even hope to figure out where it is?

The reaction I’ve seen to the movie has been polarizing. Some get the joke and laugh loudly while others are simply offended by it. I tended towards the former. Once the Crimson Bolt and Boltie go off to rescue Sarah, the movie goes completely dark and the humor which had been peppering it for most of the film takes a back seat, despite the homage to the comic books a la the old “Batman” TV show with cartoonish BAMs and POWs accenting the violence.

There are religious overtones that some may find offensive, there are fight sequences that some might find offensive, there’s sex and rape that some might find offensive. Those with thick skins however might actually find this cooler than Jesus – literally, since Jesus makes a cameo sitting on a wall during one of Frank’s visions. The point is, if you approach this seriously (as many critics did), then you’re missing the point. Super may lampoon some of the baser elements of superhero conceits, but this isn’t a spoof. No, indeed like Frank himself, this is far more than what it appears to be on the surface.

REASONS TO GO: Darkly funny with lots of laugh out loud moments. Unrepentantly gross.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too ultraviolent for some. Could have used a few more laughs in the final reel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some extreme violence, lots of foul language, some fairly graphic sexuality and nudity and a goodly amount of drug use, among other things, make this so very not for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gunn was formerly married to Jenna Fischer, Wilson’s co-star from “The Office” who recommended him for the role.

HOME OR THEATER: Would fit right in on an old battered television set.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Charlotte’s Web (2006)