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.

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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.

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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.

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Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back, everyone!  If you didn’t see the first half of my top 10 films of 2014, be sure to click here.  Just a reminder: I don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This list represents a mixture of the two.  Now, let’s get on with it!

5.) “Birdman”

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With films like “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is something of a master of misery.  I never thought I would describe one of his films as breezy and entertaining, but…”Birdman” is breezy and entertaining.  He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — everything this guy touches is visually golden — devise a series of long takes that are expertly stitched together to give the impression of one continuous shot for the duration of the film.  Their camera weaves in and out of darkly comic fantasies, as Michael Keaton’s Riggan, a has-been movie star, attempts to revitalize his career by doing a play in New York.  Keaton is joined by Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts in the best ensemble of the year.  Norton is particularly strong, playing a talented yet egotistical performer.  He flexes some comedic muscles in one of my favorite acting moments of the year.  He suggests an alteration to one of Riggan’s scenes, and after the two enact the change, Norton gives a shrug as if to say, “Pretty good, huh?”  Yeah, pretty damn good.

4.) “Snowpiercer”

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Director Bong Joon-ho’s films are marked by dynamic tonal shifts.  “Snowpiercer” is about the remnants of the world’s population on a train that circles the globe.  The planet has become inhospitable after an attempt to curb global warming goes wrong.  The train is broken up into the haves (at the front) and the have-nots (at the back).  Tilda Swinton embodies the film’s more outrageous fixtures in a whacko performance as Mason, the spokesperson for the creator of the engine.   “Keep your place.  Be a shoe,” she tells Chris Evans’s Curtis as he and his fellow passengers attempt a revolution.  Balancing such comedic elements are some of the most visceral action sequences of the year.  One of the principle tenants of directing action is to use the setting, making the sequence possible only in its particular location.  Here, we get a tense battle that’s complicated by the train speeding through a tunnel.  The haves are equipped with night vision goggles while the have-nots are not.  In another great sequence, two characters, cars apart, fire at each across an open expanse as the train rounds a wide turn in the track.  Some might find Joon-ho’s work mood swing-y, but I think his mixture of tones is exhilarating.

3.) “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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Wes Anderson’s films have been described as pocket watches, and the comparison is apt. Every piece of art direction, every camera move, every performance flourish plays an integral role in the experience.  Well, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a pocket watch wrapped up in a series of Russian dolls.  Beginning with a girl at the gravesite of an author, transitioning to the author relaying a story about going to the titular hotel, jumping back to the same author talking to Zero, the hotel’s owner, and finally arriving in 1932 where we meet young Zero and the concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).  Fiennes is an actor I usually associate with drama…heavy drama.  “Schindler’s List” anyone?  But here he shows his comedic chops.  Gustave H. is a fun contradiction, refined and crass in equal measure.  With this and “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson is on a hot streak.  “Grand Budapest” plastered a huge smile on my face, it’s so inventive and fully realized.  The film isn’t all fun and games; as with any of Anderson’s work, there’s a twinge of melancholy.  It can be sad to look back…and then look back…and look back some more.

2.) “The Lego Movie”

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Dear Michael Bay,

Have you seen “The Lego Movie?”  Well you should, because it’s great!  I know, I’m as surprised as you are.  It’s based on tiny plastic bricks for goodness sake!  But it proves that a good film can come from anywhere.  This one’s from Phil Lord and Chris Miller.  (Do you know them? And do you think you could get me a job on their next film?)  Let me tell you what the movie’s about.  A construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) learns that he might be The Special, a hero prophesized to defeat the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell).  There wasn’t a funnier movie in 2014, but a lot of the comedy comes from names you might not expect, like Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop and Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius.  (He’s kind of the Obi-Wan to Emmet’s Luke Skywalker.)  It’s great to see a children’s film — did I mention it’s based on a toy? – that’s fun and engaging and even has something to say about consumer culture and individuality.

Your pal,

Gar

P.S. “The Lego Movie” ALSO has lots of explosions! I know how much you like those.

1.) “Boyhood”

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I know, I know, it’s a boring choice for #1.  But what can I say?  Sometimes there’s a good reason a particular film is mentioned over and over again at the end of the year.  Everyone knows the story behind the production of “Boyhood” — Richard Linklater filmed the movie off and on for 12 years with the same core group of performers.  We follow six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) bounce between parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette), fall into and out of love, and ultimately leave home.  Some have criticized “Boyhood” for being nothing more than a gimmick.  “No one would be talking about this movie if they cast actors of different ages!”  To that, I say the method of filming is inseparable from the film itself.  “Boyhood” is about the fleetingness of time.  Different scenes are going to resonate differently with different people.  For me, the moment that hit hardest was actually a two-part sequence.  It begins with Mason and his girlfriend, Sheena, sharing some late night food at a diner.  They talk about their hopes and fears, and it’s a wonderfully harmonious scene.  They seem right for each other.  Cut to a year later — no title cards in this film, which creates some striking transitions — and Mason and Sheena have had a bitter break up.  No screaming, no shouting.  We don’t even see the break-up on screen.  The film largely eschews those standard coming-of-age scenes that involve a lot of fireworks.  Instead, the emotional impact comes from the gradual culmination of smaller moments, like the sun imperceptibly creeping across the sky…before it sets.

Thanks for reading!  Here’s the complete list:

  1. “Boyhood”
  2. “The Lego Movie”
  3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
  4. “Snowpiercer”
  5. “Birdman”
  6. “Ida”
  7. “Gone Girl”
  8. “Godzilla”
  9. “Selma”
  10. “Nightcrawler”

And some honorable mentions: “The Babadook,” “Blue Ruin,” “Calvary,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Two Days, One Night”

So, do you agree or disagree with my list?  What were some of your favorite films of 2014?  Comment below.