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.

Review: “Godzilla” (2014)

In honor of the disc release of this summer’s “Godzilla,” I wanted to offer my thoughts on the film. You might remember that I’m a huge fan – gargantuan, even – of the character. The following is pretty spoiler free, with one exception, but I’ll give you a heads up.

“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man…”

Those words were sung by Blue Öyster Cult in their hit song, “Godzilla.”  It’s a philosophy director Gareth Edwards took to heart in this summer’s dazzling reboot.  A nifty title sequence sets the stage.  We learn that the presumed nuclear tests in the South Pacific of the 1950s were in fact attempts to kill the creature.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a rousing score, as we get a brief glimpse of the titular monster, his dorsal spines cresting the surface of the ocean, like the world’s largest super shark.

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Cut to 1999, a strange incident causes a Japanese nuclear power plant to go into meltdown.  Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a supervisor at the plant, provides our emotional hook into the film, as he spends the next 15 years trying to figure out what happened.  His son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home after a tour of duty.  Having spent only a few hours with his family, he’s reluctantly called to Japan to bail his father out of prison.  Joe was trespassing in the quarantine zone in an effort to discover the cause of the disaster.

Turns out it wasn’t an earthquake, as reported.

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There’s a passing of the baton, and Ford becomes the main focus.  This brings us to the film’s biggest liability: its characters.  Especially Ford Brody. The supporting roles are thin, but they’re played by talented performers, so the mediocre writing is tolerable.  In addition to Cranston, the cast includes Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, and Sally Hawkins. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t equipped to imbue his character with any gravitas or charisma, and questionable character beats and developments land with a thud.

One such moment occurs near the end of the film.  In the interest of remaining spoiler free, I’ll just say Ford gives up at a critical juncture when he should be fighting tooth and nail.  Some have criticized the movie for the characters’ insignificance and lack of impact next to the monsters, but that isn’t an inherently bad thing.  What do the protagonists accomplish in “Seven?”  Nothing.  In fact, drama is derived from their inability to change their fate.  That’s what this “Godzilla” needed, but make no mistake, Godzilla should confound mankind at every turn.  After all, the character was born out of Japan’s anxiety over nuclear attacks.

Much has been made about Godzilla’s lack of screen time – a complaint that frankly boggles my mind.  Gareth Edwards understands, like Spielberg and Ridley Scott before him, that the quickest way to take the majesty and menace out of a main attraction is to overexpose it.  Each and every time Godzilla is on screen, Edwards makes it count.

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Indeed, he and screenwriter Max Borenstein allow their film to build toward a distinct and succinct climax, shrewdly dolling out spectacle in small doses until the thunderous ending.  I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see filmmakers respect their audience in this regard, particularly when so many blockbusters are structured for itchy teens.  Climax upon climax upon climax – after a while, it stops meaning anything.

Edwards and Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey rigorously adopt P.O.V. camerawork, with much of the action being framed from the ground level.  This creates scale, placing us in the action, and combined with the well-timed set pieces, gives the film a genuine sense of awe that’s been missing from multiplexes.  So many blockbuster directors are seduced by their budgets, and they use shots that showcase their resources but fail to involve the audience.

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Despite the bleak subject matter, and contrary to a criticism that the film takes itself too seriously, Edwards knows how to have a good time.  Just as things start to heat up, he wryly cuts away from a bit of action at the Honolulu International Airport.  (Gotta leave enough fuel in the tank for the big finish.) Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise” scores the destruction of Las Vegas.  And there are so many playful uses of the camera.  As Ford waits on a tram to get to his flight, the power goes out.  When the lights come back on, we follow their progress from inside the tram.  Suddenly, they illuminate this hulking titan as it lumbers into the airport.  It’s a motivated camera movement, an organic reveal, and it provides a nice little scare to boot.

And Edwards isn’t just adept at money shots.  He’s got a true filmmaker’s eye, hanging entire sequences on simple images that are so lo-fi, they could have come from his low-budget debut, “Monsters.”  The camera lingers on an empty hallway in a power plant in crisis, as we wait to see what will round the corner.  A group of marines storm a nuclear waste site searching for something.  Nothing out of the ordinary in the first two containment facilities, but when a marine pulls back a sliding door on the third one, he’s greeted with a blinding shaft of light.  What’s that about?

Okay, it’s gonna be difficult for me to avoid spoilers here.  If you haven’t seen the film, go ahead and skip to the next bit of bolded text.

At the end of the film, Godzilla slides into San Francisco Bay, having defeated an ancient menace that threatened the city.  Onlookers cheer as a news broadcast proclaims, “King of the Monsters — Savior of our city?”  I love the nod to the Americanization of the original film and the clever commentary on our media’s propensity to slap labels on things.

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The celebratory nature of the ending has been ribbed in some corners, but I thought it was a wonderful continuation of the film’s main theme: man’s hubris.  What could be more arrogant than to assume that a force of nature acted on our behalf?  “He did this for us!” Think I’m overreaching? Check out how Edwards’ camera descends as Godzilla submerges.  We’re left at the surface, as though we were treading water, a precarious place to be when there’s a massive beast swimming beneath your toes.  The shot holds after Desplat’s triumphant score has faded, creating an eerie calm, as though waiting for the creature to re-surface for one last attack.

Okay “Godzilla” virgins, it’s safe to come back now.

“The arrogance of man is assuming nature is in our control, and not the other way around,” Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa intones.  It’s there in the way tsunami waters wipe away a coastal street.  It’s there in the way a dog surveys bodies at a train wreck.  And it’s there in the way nature has retaken the quarantined city in Japan, plants and animals clinging to every surface.  Rest assured, nature will retake more major cities before the movie’s over.

What did you think of “Godzilla?” Comment below!