Review: “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation”

No school like the old school.

Much has been written about Tom Cruise’s stunt work in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”  Hell, if you’ve caught the trailer or poster — or any piece of marketing, really — you’ve seen him hanging off an airplane during takeoff.  And that’s how the film opens!

Rogue poster

Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s packs the fifth entry in the “Mission: Impossible” series with old school touches.  Beginning with the plane stunt and continuing to Joe Kraemer’s delicious big band score.  It sounds as though he took a page from John Barry’s Bond music from the 60s.  And maybe the “Mission: Impossible” TV series.  (Though aside from the main theme, I’m not especially familiar with the music for the show.)  

The movie’s standout setpiece, in a Vienna Opera House, is a loving nod to Alfred Hitchcock and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  I love how our understanding of the players, their motivations and allegiances develop throughout the sequence.  The power dynamics — who’s on top, who knows what —  are constantly in flux.  And it only benefits from the ongoing performance, the operatic music underscoring the action while our heroes and villains struggle to remain quiet.  It’s a marvel of suspense filmmaking.

Now you might be saying, “Okay, the action’s great, but how’s the plot?”

Well, you’ll notice I haven’t given a plot summary, and that’s because it follows a pretty well-trodden path — Ethan is looking to put a stop to an elusive criminal organization known as the Syndicate.  There are enough twists and turns (and yes, convolutions) to keep things interesting.

“And the characters?  Are they enough to sustain a full feature?”

They are.  Just enough.

Ethan is as doggedly determined as ever, which is not to say the character is without fear.  This is a critical element that gets us invested in his success.  Just because he can navigate these life threatening situations, doesn’t mean he wants to.  Simon Pegg’s Benji, an analyst, has a bit more zeal this time, as he wants to contribute beyond sitting at a desk and punching some buttons.  

simon pegg

But the MVP is newcomer Rebecca Ferguson.  She plays Ilsa Faust, an agent who might be working with the Syndicate.  Or maybe not.  Her motivations and whose side she’s on generate a lot of the movie’s non-setpiece pleasures.  And she handles the action and fights scenes with aplomb, doing a lot of her own stunts.

Seriously, if this woman isn’t the break out star of the year, I’ll strap myself to the outside of an airplane.

rebecca ferguson

A few have criticized the last act of “Rogue Nation,” calling it out for being not quite up to snuff.  When you open as spectacularly as this movie does, where do you go from there?  It’s a complaint I’m certainly sensitive to, I just don’t think it applies here.  Yes, the spectacle in the third act is dramatically reduced, but the emotional stakes are amplified. The character threads, specifically concerning Benji and Ilsa, come into play in spectacular fashion.

This film has something for all action fans.  Setpieces with enormous scale, intimate fights and riveting chases.  It’s absolutely a film to be appreciated on the big screen.  McQuarrie’s quick cutting communicates maximum velocity without ever sacrificing geography.  The stunt work, largely performed by our main cast, injects the film with authenticity and makes us root all the more for our characters. 

“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” is in theaters now.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?  Comment below.

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A lesson in basic narrative structure, courtesy of “Stairway to Heaven”

Last week I revisited James Cameron’s “Aliens” for the umpteenth time and marveled at its slow burn structure.  Like its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it takes a whole hour for the titular critters to show up.  But this storytelling model has fallen by the wayside.  We rarely see it employed, and it’s rewarded even less.  Instead we shovel money at Michael Bay and his Transformer movies…upwards of a billion dollars domestically to a franchise with more explosions than stakes, tension, or story.

I don’t mean to sound like an angry old man shaking his cane, but how do you determine the end of a story if not by the climax?  A climax is something you have to build toward, so if your film is nothing but climaxes, then your ending is going to feel as meek and tepid as limp chestburster.

chestburster

But let’s consider this strategy from a different angle, from a smaller and more easily digestible approach: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

It’s pretty much unanimously regarded as one of the great rock songs and maybe the greatest rock guitar solo.  And for good reason, but I would argue a critical element to the song’s power is its construction.  It builds to that solo.  Were the whole thing wallpapered with Jimmy Page’s virtuosic playing, we would be desensitized to it.  I don’t think we’d be as enamored with that version of the song.

”Stairway” clocks in at 8:03.  During the first 2:13, we get Robert Plant’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and some recorders.  Led Zeppelin is laying the groundwork.

In the first 20 minutes of “Aliens,” a salvage crew finds Ripley floating in deep space.  She makes a report to the Powers That Be, during which, she learns that while she was in hyper sleep, a colony was established on the alien world.  We also witness Ripley’s nightmares of an alien exploding from her chest like a grotesque jack-in-the-box.

At 2:14 into “Stairway,” we get a little electric guitar.  Now the song is taking shape, rooting itself more firmly.  This is rock ‘n’ roll after all!

Ripley learns from Company Man, Burke, that communications with the colony have been cut.  A team of marines is sent in.  Hoping to silence her fears, Ripley agrees to tag along.  When they arrive, they find the colony in shambles — the only survivor is a young girl named Newt.

ripley and newt

Now, we’re 4:19 into this roughly 8 minute song, and here come the drums.  This is what we signed up for!

Likewise, halfway through “Aliens,” we get our first look at the creatures.  Having stumbled into a hive in the basement of a power planet, the marines are ambushed by dozens of xenomorphs.  They regroup, only to discover that during the fire fight, the plant was damaged and is ready to explode…like a 40-megaton thermonuclear weapon.  Complications arise.  It’s revealed that Burke is trying to sabotage the mission by bringing creatures back to his company’s bio-weapons division.  The aliens launch an attack on the marines, resulting in Newt’s capture.

And at 5:56, we arrive at the famous guitar solo!

Ripley goes on a one-woman mission to recover Newt from the aliens’ nest.  She rescues her, and the two come face to face with the Alien Queen.  Ripley torches her eggs.  They take off, escaping an immense explosion, but then discover that the Queen has boarded their ship.  Ripley drives the creature into an airlock and finds herself in its clutches.

alien queen

“And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than a soul…”

She opens the airlock, which sucks the Queen out into space.

At 7:46, the solo draws to a close, and we come back to where we started with Robert Plant’s eerie vocals.

Ripley returns to hyper sleep with Newt.

“Can I dream,” the young girl asks.

“Yes, honey.  I think we both can.”

This model isn’t just meant for creature features.  “Die Hard” isn’t plastered with wall-to-wall action.  Indeed, it’s also a slow burn.  A fair amount of time passes before the first shots are fired.

And obviously, this template isn’t going to apply to every film.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” opens with a bang.  Though it’s a film that’s generally thought of as unrelenting, things quiet down after that initial set piece.  I also think there’s something to be said for dynamic range.  Yes, the opening of “Raiders” is exciting, but the ending is literally — as far as our characters are concerned — face melting.

But back to “Aliens”…You’d be hard pressed not to find a pantheon-level monster movie that doesn’t follow this structure — from “Alien” to “Aliens,” from “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” from the original “King Kong” to the original “Godzilla.”

If you’re firing at 10 nonstop, eventually 10 loses its luster.

Agree or disagree?  Comment below!

Review: “Inside Out”

With 2015 half over, I thought I’d review my favorite film of the year so far, “Inside Out.”  It’s in wide release and making a killing, so if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it, there’s still a chance.

Oh, how I love Pixar!  From 1995 to 2010, the studio produced an almost unimpeachable run of animated features.  In the intervening years, their output has been a little rocky with sequels and prequels such as “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” but “Inside Out” is an absolute return to form.

First thing’s first, it’s got a fantastic premise.  We follow young Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) and the emotions that govern her life:  Joy (Amy Poehler, who should probably be in every Pixar film), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader).  Lead by Joy, these anthropomorphized figures reside in Riley’s head and work together to balance her emotional existence.

inside out emotions

The film chronicles an important time in Riley’s life, as she struggles with her family’s move from Minnesota to California.  It’s not an altogether original story idea, but that’s hardly a liability for the film.  The internal workings of her mind, as rendered by director and co-screenwriter Pete Docter, are bursting with creativity.  There are core memories, the Train of Thought, islands that represent the tenants of Riley’s personality, Dream Productions, and one of my favorites…Abstract Thought.  After being separated from Headquarters, Joy and Sadness travel though the latter, where they’re reduced to flat geometric shapes and finally simple lines.

INSIDE OUT

Though the humor is on point throughout — including a hilarious end credit sequence that delves into inner emotional workings of some other characters — “Inside Out” sees Pixar return to its darker storytelling impulses.  Not since the harrowing third act of “Toy Story 3” have I felt as emotionally invested in the fate of our characters.  As Joy and Sadness travel through the recesses of Riley’s mind, they watch her personality islands crumble and fall.  Joy’s plight, just wanting to see Riley happy, is genuinely heartrending.  So too is the end of the film.

joy is sad

Lately, it seems the studio has kept its stakes low and manageable, but “Inside Out” sees Pixar pushing them to their brink. And it’s a welcome relief. Too often, animated and family films are content to play it safe. Pixar ventured out of the sandbox, and the trip was worth the risk – they reminded characters and audiences alike what it means to grow up.

Have you seen “Inside Out?” Comment below!

My 40 Favorite Moments from “Jaws” (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back!  If you missed the first part of my 40 favorite moments from “Jaws,” click here.  Don’t forget to check out the film on the big screen this evening, courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events.

21.) Quint’s shark shack

Quint ribs Hooper about his city hands, and the Chief can’t stomach Quint’s homemade booze.  The scene sets up a lot of the conflict to come.  These characters and their dynamic are a real strength of the film.  I could watch these guys on a road trip.

22.) “Farewell and adieu…”

Before setting out, Quint sings “Spanish Ladies.”  (It’s catchy as hell!)  I’ve always loved the smile Hooper gives him.  I like to think it’s a rare moment of camaraderie between them, Hooper perhaps recognizing a song he’s heard on the ocean.  But you could also read it as “Just nod and smile at the crazy loon.”

Farewell and adieu

23.) Genre hop

An interesting things about “Jaws” is that it changes genres halfway through.  It starts as a horror film — an unseen force preying on a white picket fence community — and then it becomes an adventure when our three heroes embark on a hunt for a killer shark.

24.) Drinking contest

One of the things that makes “Jaws” so special is its sense of humor.  It leverages the suspense and excitement, and it comes naturally from its characters.  Consider Quint and Hooper having a drink.  Quint drains his beer can and crushes it, Hooper does just the same…except his is a Styrofoam cup.

Drinking contest 1

Drinking contest 2

25.) Air tank exposition

Hooper chews Brody out for sending air tanks across the Orca’s deck.  It’s a great bit of exposition, because it accomplishes three things at once.  (1) It ups the stakes and the possibility for disaster.  (2) It reinforces that Brody is not at home on the water and isolates him from the other characters.  (3) It sets up the shark’s final scene and the climax of the film.

26.) Whose [fishing] line is it anyway?

An attempt to capture the shark involves piano wire and a fishing rod.  Brody and Hooper are busy, so only Quint notices that something seems to be nibbling on the end of his line.  The sound work is fantastic, allowing tension to build.  Click, click, click.  The line twitches in the water.  Creak.  And Quint fastens himself to his chair.

Fishing line

27.) The shark is ready for its close-up

Martin:  “I can go slow ahead.  Come on down and chum some of this shit!”

And boom, more than an hour into the film, the Great White finally gets his close-up.  Timed perfectly, I love the way Spielberg turns a laugh into a scream.

Shark's close up

28.) Shark’s limited screen time

I adore the judicious use of the shark, a strategy that would surely fall flat today.  (Remember all that bellyaching about Godzilla’s screen time in last year’s reboot?)  Still, few things take the majesty and menace out of a monster like overexposure.

29.) “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

C’mon, what else do I need to say!  The perfect encapsulation of an insurmountable problem.

30.) Pirate music

John Williams’s work highlights that transition from horror to sea-faring adventure.  Nowhere is that more prevalent than the first chase.  Listen to the track here.  Still gets my heart racing.

31.) Fish stories

Quint and Hooper, a little tipsy, compare scars in a game of one-upsmanship.  I got this from a bull shark.  Well, I got this from a thresher.  The Chief lifts his shirt, takes a look at his appendectomy scar, then quickly dismisses it.  The scene’s a welcome reprieve after the first thrilling chase and before…

32.) “You were on the Indianapolis?”

I love the way Hooper’s laugh deflates when he learns that Quint was on the USS Indianapolis.  It’s a great bit of acting by Dreyfuss.  If you’re not familiar with the story — I certainly wasn’t as a kid — it lets you know that you’re in for something. Also note how Brody isn’t aware of the event.  Yet again, he’s the outsider.

33.) The Indianapolis monologue 

Robert Shaw delivers the movie monologue to end all movie monologues.  The language is so evocative: “You know the thing about a shark, he’s got black eyes.  Lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes.  When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’…until he bites ya.”  Whether a conscious choice or not — Shaw was a drinker on set — I love Quint’s drunken portrayal.  As though his boat-mates wouldn’t be hearing this story if he were sober.  It also serves as a basis for some of Quint’s more questionable decisions.

Indianapolis

34.) The sound of silence

After conditioning the audience to expect the shark’s theme before an attack, Spielberg and Williams pull a great switcheroo.  When the barrels attached to the fish surface, the audience knows the threat is there.  Its attack comes out of silence.

35.) “He’s chasing us, I don’t believe it!”

I love the characterization – I’m using that word loosely — of the shark. He’s driven by more than just instinct, and, yes, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he just moved on to another beach.  He almost mocks our heroes before bringing his full strength to bear.  The way he passes by Hooper in the cage before striking (more on that in a bit).  And the way the tables turn and he starts chasing the Orca.  The shark’s final scene is spectacular, but it’s earned.  You feel as though that’s what it’d take, nothing less, to kill this unstoppable force.

36.) Life jackets

Quint tells Brody and Hooper that he’ll never put on a life jacket again.  So when he hands each of them one, the boat hanging low in the water, it speaks volumes about their predicament.  This is as close as Quint gets to apologizing.  And I love the visual of him finding the life jackets: hanging from the ceiling, dripping with water.

Life jackets

37.) Cage match

With Hooper in the cage, we finally get our first full-body look at the Great White.  It appears out of the din, Williams’s theme chugging along in the background.  It glides by the cage, not even fitting inside the 2.35 framing.  As it disappears into the murk again, the theme fades.  So haunting!

Cage match

38.) “The ocean turns red…”

A shark attack in all its grisly horror, Quint comes face-to-face with the thing he fears most.  Shaw’s committed performance sells it and makes for one of the best movie deaths of all time.  Oh man, and the foley work — the snap-crack when the shark bites into Quint’s leg.  Ouch.

Ocean turns red

39.) The end

Martin:  “I used to hate the water.”

Hooper:  “I can’t imagine why.”

The end

40.) Source of inspiration

Okay, not really a moment from “Jaws,” but I owe my love of movies to this film.  I’ve told the story before, but when I was seven years old, I wanted to be a marine biologist.  So my mother showed me “Jaws,” and I wanted to be a filmmaker.  When you hear about all the production’s trials and tribulations — ballooning budgets and schedules, a malfunctioning shark, weather, location politics — it’s a marvel it got made at all and a testament to art coming from adversity.  That the film turned out as well as it did, well, that’s just icing on the cake.  Or chum in the water.  I liked “Jaws” as a kid, but it took getting older to appreciate how good it is.

Thanks for reading!  Do you have a favorite moment from “Jaws?”  Comment below.

My 40 Favorite Moments from “Jaws” (Part 1 of 2)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of “Jaws.”  Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley, and starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss.  The film changed the course of Hollywood…and it changed the course of my life.  Note the name of the blog.  In honor of its big anniversary, part one of my 40 favorite moments from “Jaws.”

1.) Duuh dunnn…duuuuh duun…

“All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.”  What better way to characterize something so simple than with two notes?  Once John Williams’s theme gets going, it does indeed sound like an engine.  A big, unstoppable engine…with teeth.

2.) Peeping shark

Suspense builds as we watch an unsuspecting menu item, her feet dangling beneath the surface.

Peeping Shark

3.) The first bite is the deepest

The minimalist approach here was the way to go.  There isn’t so much as a shadow or flick of a fin.  Just violent jerking motions.  Primal and visceral.

First bite

4.) Meeting Martin Brody 

Martin:  “How come the sun didn’t used to shine in here?”

Ellen:  “We bought the house in the fall.  This is summer.”

Ellen:  “In Amity you say ‘yahd’.”

Martin:  “[The kids] are in the yahd, not too fahr from the cahr.  How’s that?”

Ellen:  “Like you’re from New York.”

In a few quick lines, we learn so much about the Brody family and Martin in particular.

5.) The ferry long take

The mayor corners the chief for a meeting about tourist season.  There’s minimal camera movement, but since we’re on a ferry, the background is spinning and Spielberg keeps the actors moving such that we don’t notice the long take.  It’s a dynamic way to deliver exposition.

ferry

6.) Brody’s POV

Spielberg places us in the shoes of the paranoid chief as he watches bathers from his chair.  Beach-goers walk in front of the camera — they wipe off Brody and wipe on what he’s looking at.  Someone will be talking to the chief, their face wedged into the corner of the frame and an expanse of ocean over their shoulder, letting us know what’s really on our his mind.

Brody POV

7.) Let’s [not] paint the town red!

Red is used so sparingly in the film that when it does appear, it pops off the screen.

Paint the town red

8.) There’s chaos in the air

“We have to talk to Mrs. Kintner, because this is going to turn into a contest.”

“I have a motel!  How do you feel about this?”  

“Go out there tomorrow and see that no one gets hurt!”  

Overlapping dialog during the town meeting accomplishes so much more than a traditional, staged approach.  It adds texture and makes Amity feel lived in.

9.) There ARE strings on me.

Brody, on the left side of the frame, talks about keeping the beaches safe.  He has no lead room — no vision or conviction.  Behind him, the mayor and his cronies watch their puppet dance.  A whole story in one shot.

Puppet dance

10.) Quint’s intro

Nails on a chalkboard rake across a shark that’s devouring a swimmer.   And so we meet the film’s most indelible character.  Quint’s entrance encompasses all the bluster that he’ll come to embody.  And yet his line, “There’s too many captains on this island,” cuts right to the heart of the problem.  Bureaucracy and commercial interests have indeed run amok on the island.

Quint intro

11.) Brody’s studies

Brody glances through a series of photographs depicting real-life shark attacks.  Reflected in his glasses, the horror on the book pages consume his vision.

Brody studies

12.) Fickle fin

Martin:  “I don’t want him on the ocean!”

Ellen:  “He’s not on the ocean, he’s in a boat!”

Fickle fin pt 1

Fickle fin pt 2

Ellen:  “Michael! Did you hear your father? Out of the water now.  Now!”

13.) Attack of the Pier!

After a bounty is placed on the shark, two fishermen attempt to catch it.  When the fish takes the bait chained to a pier, half the pier goes with it and one of the men gets dragged out to sea.  In one of my favorite gags, the pier turns around and follows him.  Shark-by-proxy, far spookier than actually seeing the creature.

14.) Brody and his son

Few and far between are the blockbusters that would make room for a scene like this.  Having been blamed for the death of Alex Kintner, the chief finds himself goofing off with his son.  The young boy mimics his father, and Martin plays along.  It aligns us firmly with our hero.

Brody and his son

15.) Ellen & Hooper

Ellen laughs just a little too hard and a little too long at some of Hooper’s jokes.  It’s a nice bit of characterization and a nice nod to Peter Benchley’s novel, which contained a subplot about an affair between the two.

16.) “Drowning”

Ellen:  “Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the main land.  I guess it’s a childhood thing.  There’s a clinical name for it, isn’t there?”

Martin:  “Drowning.”

You’ve got to love Schieder’s off-handed delivery.  In a lesser film, Martin Brody would have been too broadly comic or just a wet blanket.  But Spielberg and Scheider strike the right balance.

17.) Boo!

While we ponder Hooper’s discovery of a tooth the size of a shot glass — Bam! — a pale and bloated corpse floats out to greet him.  Like a magician, Spielberg draws our gaze away before the trick.

Boo

18.) Water-level camera

One of the visual strategies Spielberg employs is a water-level camera.  This usually involves water lapping over the lens and swimmers in the background.  It amps up the tension as it feels like we, the audience, are treading shark-infested water.

Water-level camera

19.) “Michael’s in the pond!”

After a false alarm on July 4th, a woman spots the shark.  “There’s a shark in the pond!”  The camera tracks with Brody in profile as he makes his way through a crowd, faster and faster until the beach goers are blurs around him.  It’s a great means of visualizing the chief’s rising panic as his son happens to be playing in the pond.

20.) Mayor of Shark City

“I was acting in the town’s best interest.” Murray Hamilton says this to himself as much as Brody, as though he was already practicing for the media gauntlet.  By the end of the scene, he’s just a broken man: “Martin, my kids were on that beach too.”  It’s a glimmer of humanity in a character that’s otherwise pretty sleazy.

Tune in tomorrow for the second and final installment in “My 40 Favorite Moments from ‘Jaws’.”  Also tomorrow, Fathom Events will also be screening the film throughout the country.  If you’ve never seen “Jaws” on a big screen with a large audience, it’s a real treat!  Click here for location and ticket details.

Review: “Hannibal” (Seasons 1 and 2)

If you’re like me, you’re a little nervous about projects that involve Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.  Don’t get me wrong, “The Silence of the Lambs” was an integral part of my development as a film nerd, but “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon?”  Not so much.  I didn’t even bother with “Hannibal Rising.”  Between the sequel and two prequels, it seemed the boogeyman of my teenage years had been whittled down to a punch line.

Well, until now.

hannibal and skull

Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal,” which is based on the book by Thomas Harris and has its third season premiering tonight on NBC, brings the character back to his menacing roots.  A far cry from the grubby realism of Jonatham Demme’s “Lambs,” the show adopts a surrealist approach.  This is evident from the very first scene of the first episode, where Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) investigates a murder.  Gifted — or cursed — with hyper empathy, Will’s able to see into the scene of a crime.  He assesses what was done and how.  We watch as a pool of blood retracts into the victim and breath re-enters her body, only to see her killed again, Will standing in as the murderer.

This approach is pretty unique, particularly for network television, and it feels wholly appropriate for a franchise in which one character convinced another to swallow his own tongue.  Will’s visions fuel some of the show’s creepier images.  His relationship with Hannibal is visualized as a black stag — a motif that’s poignantly used in the final moments of Season 2.  Will sees Hannibal himself as a Wendigo, a half-man-half-stag.  One of the show’s more chilling (and darkly comic) moments comes when Will envisions the Wendigo taking the stand in a courtroom.

wendigo

Speaking of unsettling, Brian Reitzell’s Ligeti-inspired score is a real highlight.

But let’s get to the main event: Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter.  I’d only seen Mikkelsen as one of the baddies in “Casino Royale,” but he’s a revelation!  His Hannibal is harder to read than Hopkins’s, playing his cards close to his chest while secretly making his puppets dance a sick charade.  Like many great monsters, he’s got a hell of an introduction.  At its worst — which is still better than most — “Hannibal” is a standard procedural complete with wise-cracking investigators, but the titular character’s reveal halfway through the first episode was the moment I went all in.

One of the series’s real strengths is the pairing of Hannibal and Will.  Dr. Lecter has a deep fascination with this man who’s become his patient, and Will’s hyper empathy allows him to appreciate Hannibal’s eccentricities.  There’s almost a romantic edge to their relationship, and I love how it takes on tragic dimensions by the end of the second season.

will and hannibal

The main thing I could see driving viewers away is the gore.  While there are passages that make “Silence of the Lambs” look like Disney, I’m not sure the squeamish would come to the show in the first place.  And the carnage is displayed…dare I say it…beautifully.  Most striking might be a human totem pole discovered on a beach in season one.

totem pole

Also, the food cinematography, disturbing as that sounds, is sensational.

“Hannibal” struggles with ratings — maybe because of its violent content or surrealist approach — but I sincerely hope you’ll check it out.  At the risk of fanboying, I’m so glad this show exists.  Not only is its non-traditional approach a breath of fresh air, but its revitalization of a pummeled pop culture icon is really exciting.

So long as you have the stomach for it.

Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Marvel fans will assemble — heh, heh — at theaters this weekend for the hotly anticipated sequel to 2012’s “The Avengers.”  So the big question on everyone’s lips, metallic or otherwise: Can “Age of Ultron” live up to its predecessor?

Well…not quite.

But that’s okay.

avengers banner

The film opens with the Avengers — Steve Rogers’s Captain America, Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow, Bruce Banner’s Hulk, Clint Barton’s Hawkeye and Thor’s…uh…Thor — attempting to recover Loki’s scepter from a Hydra base in Europe.  There we’re introduced to the brother-sister pairing of super-fast Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), their powers the result of Hydra’s experiments.

Avengers-2-Quicksilver-Scarlet-Witch-645x370

After recovering the scepter, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) use it to secretly develop an A.I. that will bolster a robotic defense system to supplant the Avengers.  Tony envisions a suit of armor around the world.  He calls it the Ultron program.  Once activated, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides to push his maker’s agenda to the nth degree:  the only way to save the planet is to eliminate the human race.

The first act of “Ultron” left me worried.  Despite the use of some CG-enhanced long takes, there’s very little sense of geography in the opening sequence.  The storytelling is more convoluted this time out.  (Seriously, my eyes went crossed writing those last couple paragraphs.)  We suffer through some pretty knotty exposition.  More than once, I found myself going Wait, who’s that?  Am I supposed to know this character?  Where’s so-and-so now?  Still, writer-director Joss Whedon weaves in some wonderful setup.  My favorite instance involves a pissing contest over Thor’s hammer.  Tony, Steve and Bruce try to lift it in an effort to prove themselves worthy.  The payoff to this is hugely satisfying and a great development at a critical juncture for our heroes.

The new additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are mostly strong.  This is the best Elizabeth Olsen has been since her acclaimed performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is sleepy as ever, but his screen time is short and lines of dialog even shorter.  Ultron is one of studio’s best villains, though the competition is admittedly light.  I enjoyed Spader’s dulcet tones as Ultron cracks wise – “I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan” – though he does tend to prattle on.

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And yes, he’s involved in another destroy-the-world plot.  Think about successful sequels like “Skyfall” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”  No fights for world domination, no planet-destroying battle stations.  Just personal struggles that make the stakes that much higher.

But “Ultron” isn’t without those intimate dramas.  There’s an attraction between Natasha and Bruce.  Though it’s pretty standard path – unfortunately, as Black Widow is the series’ most prominent female — the forbidden love angle works.  With the monster that rages inside him, Bruce is reluctant to let anyone get too close.  We also learn about Pietro and Wanda’s troubled past, which complicates their relationship to the Avengers.

Like many second chapters – I’m looking at you again, “Empire” – this one’s darker than the first.  Literally.  Ben Davis’s cinematography brings shadows into the frame, which are a nice change of pace from the brightly lit and generally flat “Avengers.”  Even the action feels heavier this time what with the percussive editing…though it can get tedious.  Crash!  Bang!  Repeat.  One sequence that benefits from the strategy is the fight between Hulk and a souped-up Iron Man.  To borrow from another comic book movie, this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

The film isn’t all doom and gloom.  Whedon’s wit is as sharp as ever.  In one of the more comical scenes, Hawkeye embraces the absurdity that super hero movies traffic in: “We’re fighting a robot army, and I’ve got a bow and arrow.  None of this makes sense!”  Renner has a lot more to work with than he has in other Marvel outings.  Fans of Whedon’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” might see parallels to Xander.  I certainly did. Hawkeye is a normal person amidst Gods (and some with God-like egos).  It affords him an opportunity to see things the others can’t.

Despite not being as strong as “The Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” is a very successful sequel.  It expands on the universe, introduces new characters, develops old ones and, per usual with Marvel, sets up things to come.