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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Review: “Daredevil” (First Season)

Warning: controversial statement ahead!  Marvel’s “Daredevil” owes a lot to The Dark Knight Trilogy, but it might just surpass its gritty, real-world super hero predecessor.  Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have trouble blending the filmmaker’s darker impulses with the expectations of a huge blockbuster.  As a series not even intended for network or cable TV, creator Drew Goddard’s latest is free from those constraints.  It rubs the viewer’s face in the muck of New York City, questioning the nature of vigilante justice: how far is too far?

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The first season draws on familiar tropes.  From the outset, we know that a childhood tragedy resulted in Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) losing his sight and set him on the path to become the titular hero.  Flashforward to the present and Matt is in confession.  He recalls his father, a boxer, and stories his grandmother told of the Murdock boys.  They were headstrong and relentless, they refused to go down without a fight – “there was a bit of devil in them.”  Matt asks the priest for forgiveness, “not for what I’ve done, but for what I’m about to do.”  Cox is strong in the role.  He’s a man with a smooth exterior, but there’s a lot of anger roiling under the surface.

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The violence in the show is stomach churning – decapitation by car door, anyone? – but never gratuitous.  It demonstrates why this type of vigilante justice might be warranted; yet it also acknowledges the cost.  Murdoch’s wounds need more than ice packs and band-aids.  A nurse (Rosario Dawson) is regularly stitching him up.  What kind of man would subject himself to this kind of bodily punishment?

Duality between the hero and villain: it’s not just a staple of comics but crime stories as well.  The villain here is Wilson Fisk.  In his early scenes, actor Vincent D’Onofrio commands empathy.  We meet him at an art gallery as he admires a painting.  In the next episode, we watch him squirm through a first date.  Then we see the consequences of his child-like outbursts, a notion underscored by Fisk’s own backstory and the juvenile gestures he often makes when he’s nervous.  Memorable villains have been a struggle for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they may just have found one for the small screen.

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The series has a strong visual signature.  Where most of Marvel’s big screen work is lit very flatly (high key lighting for the filmmakers among you), “Daredevil” takes the opposite approach.  Shadows are deep and plentiful, but the show doesn’t sacrifice color.  Matt starts a law firm and invites a client (Deborah Ann Woll) to his apartment after she’s been attacked.  He lives next to an electronic billboard  that floods his home with purple-pink light.  It’s the only reason he’s able to afford the apartment – no one else wants it – but it’s one of my favorite visual flourishes, creating a safe haven.

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“Daredevil” is a nice alternative to the safe albeit fun sandbox that Marvel usually offers its viewers. It even bests some of the genre’s more grounded and serious entries thanks to its moral complexity and genuine stakes.

Have you seen Marvel’s “Daredevil?” What did you think? Comment below. If you haven’t seen it, the show is available on Netflix Streaming. Check it out!

Lists: Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 (Part 1 of 2)

I’m a few prestige titles short of an informed perspective on this past year in cinema, so I thought I’d jump ahead!  Here are the titles I’m most looking forward to in 2015…

10.) “Tomorrowland”

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Release Date: May 22nd

What governs my interest in a project are the people involved.  A two-minute trailer can make anything look good, and a plot synopsis can’t encapsulate the creative decisions that bring a story to the screen.  With that in mind, my #10 is a mixed bag.  “Tomorrowland” is an original, big-budget science fiction film directed by Brad Bird.  From “The Iron Giant” to “The Incredibles” to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocal,” this guy is one of the best pop filmmakers working today.  Sadly, screenwriter Damon Lindelof is not.  Influenced by frequent collaborator, JJ Abrams, Lindelof is a fan of the mystery box.  His “boxes,” while interestingly packaged, are often empty.  The disappointment of “Prometheus” and the final season of “Lost” still stings.  Given Bird’s track record and the intriguing teaser — No, I don’t ignore advertising altogether — I’m holding out for a good time at the movies!

9.) “Silence”

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Release Date:  Fall

Exhibit B in the case for directors generating excitement.  “Silence” has been a long-time passion project for Martin Scorsese.  It’s about two Jesuit priests persecuted in 17th century Japan.  Conceptually, I’m not particularly interested.  It sounds like a standard dreary prestige film, but Scorsese seals the deal.  Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson are attached, and though I would prefer the original pairing of Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro, Scorsese continues to adapt and produce great work.  I was a big fan of his last two movies, “Hugo, which was uncharacteristically family friendly, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (definitely not for children).  I’m excited for him to finally bring his vision of this story to the screen.

8.) Untitled Cold War Thriller

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Release Date:  October 16th

Here’s another great collection of talent!  This untitled Cold War thriller is directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks and is written by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Based on a true story, it’s about an attorney sent to negotiate the release of an American pilot captured by the Soviet Union.  I’m especially intrigued to see what comes of the collaboration between Spielberg and the Coens.  The former wears his heart on his sleeve, while the latter tend to be cold and aloof.  It’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out.  Hanks’s involvement with Spielberg is always a plus – well almost always…”The Terminal” doesn’t do anything for me.  But let’s be honest, when Spielberg is in thriller mode, hold onto your butts!

7.) “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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Release Date: May 1st

I’m getting a little weary of super hero movies, especially Marvel’s.  Still, there’s no denying the event-ness that surrounds “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”  As a fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I was excited by Joss Whedon’s involvement with the first Avengers movie, and he didn’t let me down.  As far as the sequel, if the trailer is any indication, he’s taking the “Empire Strikes Back” approach.  This will be the darker and moodier chapter, which is fine by me.  Dark Whedon is my favorite Whedon.  (Buffy’s “The Body,” anyone?)  I’m confident he’ll be able to take these characters in new directions and bring a more personal dimension to their struggle.  Let’s face it, you can only endanger the world so often before that stops being exciting.  Maybe the film’s sentient robot antagonist, Ultron, will bring the Marvel-verse what it sorely needs: a strong villain.

6.) “That’s What I’m Talking About”

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Release Date: TBD

With 2013’s “Before Midnight” and this year’s “Boyhood,” writer-director Richard Linklater is on a god damn hot streak.  (Spoiler alert:  “Boyhood” is a serious contender for my film of the year.)  “That’s What I’m Talking About” promises to be a spiritual sequel to Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.”  Set in the 1980’s, it follows several college baseball players.  I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story.  Though they might be a dime a dozen, I really feel that few get them quite like Linklater.  Whether he’s working with a limited cast (“Before Sunrise”) or a large ensemble (“Dazed and Confused”), he’s so respectful of his characters. They come across as real flesh and blood human beings…full of happiness and sadness, drama and comedy.

Stay tuned next week for my top five most anticipated movies of 2015!

Conversations: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

As promised, my thoughts on Marvel’s latest box office juggernaut, “The Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Also as promised, I roped in my good friend, Ben DeLoose.  I’ve known Ben for over seven years.  He has worked for USA Network, NBCUniversal, and most recently, Starz Entertainment.  He and I also collaborate on 3bythree, a Youtube movie review channel.  Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis, but be warned, our discussion will contain spoilers: “Guardians of the Galaxy” tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a young man abducted from earth who traverses the galaxy looking for rare artifacts (think:  a goofier Indiana Jones).  He joins a ragtag group of misfits, which includes:  Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin; Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular alien who takes things a little too literally; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon with a propensity for technology and weapons; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid plant and Rocket’s partner.  They will work together to try to stop Ronan (Lee Pace), a radical fundamentalist, from obtaining an ultimate weapon.

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Gar:  Hiya Ben, thanks for joining me!  I’m gonna let you start us off:  What did you think of “Guardians of the Galaxy?”

Ben:  What a fun ride!  A fantastic summer entertainment and another winner from Marvel.

Gar:  I thoroughly enjoyed myself!  Though it carries the Marvel banner, it had a bit of that new car smell.  It’s not an original property, but it’s based on a comic book that I had no familiarity with.

Ben:  Same here.  I had absolutely no knowledge going in.

Gar:  I’m reluctant to call “Guardians” a GREAT movie, though.  Marvel plays things a little too conservatively for that.  Even “Iron Man,” which is still their best, has that really standard third act (crash-bang action, monologuing villain, etc.).

Ben:  They are, by no means, making revolutionary films.  Consistent entertainment?  I’d say so.  Non-stupid blockbusters?  Absolutely.  But they do regress back to their comic book roots.  There’s some clunky dialogue in all their films, including this one.  Flat exposition dumps, characters blandly stating their inner intentions and feelings.

Gar:  An instance that stands out to me was Thanos, this intergalactic warlord, revealing that Gamora (pictured below, left) was his favorite daughter in front of his other daughter Nebula (pictured below, right).

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Ben:  Absolutely

Gar:  Maybe there’s something to be said for Thanos’s arrogance and dismissiveness, but you just knew they were setting up a betrayal.

Ben:  In general, Thanos is a problem for this film.  Will casual viewers realize he was part of the invasion in the “The Avengers?”  Will they remember his stinger scene during the closing credits?  Probably not.

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Hell, the characters in the film don’t even mention the invasion to Peter Quill, despite a clear setup.  I think a character tells him, “You don’t even care about your own world,” and leaves it at that.  Why not mention the attack?  Why not use that as extra motivation for Peter to put a stop to Ronan?

Gar:  Exactly.  Marvel seems to have a villain problem.  Lee Pace is a good actor, but I just didn’t find Ronan compelling.  Some people have compared “Guardians” to Star Wars, which I think sets up a troubling level of anticipation.  Influenced by?  Absolutely.  As good as?  C’mon now.  But the #1 reason Star Wars is better than “Guardians?”  Its villain.

Ben:  Absolutely.

Gar:  Let’s talk about some of the things we liked.

Ben:  The soundtrack really stood out.  The song selection was impeccable!  It created plenty of opportunities for incongruity with the visuals, and it was diegetic.

Gar:  It also gave the film an identity, which the marketing campaign wisely tapped into.  (We should stress we’re talking about the unoriginal music used in the film — ’80s songs.  The original score was pretty forgettable, which seems to be par for the course for Marvel.)  I really enjoyed the songs too.  They added a nice layer to Peter.  You can’t help but be reminded of his mother, which of course pays off hugely at the end of the film.  While we’re on Chris Pratt, let’s go ahead and talk about the cast.

Ben:  Perfect casting.

Gar:  So good!  I am a fan of Pratt from “Parks and Recreation,” and it was great to see him carry a film of this size.

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Ben:  It was also fun to see Karen Gillan as a bad guy (and she’ll be back)!  Though Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly could have had more to do.

Gar:  Yeah, I was surprised by how little screen time Reilly had, ditto Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close.  Those are big name performers!

Ben:  I think they could have gone with character actors for those parts.

Gar:  But ya know who gave the best performance?

Ben:  Bradley Cooper.

Gar:  Yep.

Ben:  You really felt Rocket’s vulnerability under all that bravado.  Yes, the CGI was excellent, but the pain in his voice drove it home for me.

Gar:  He’s got that scene where he unloads this emotional baggage, talking about how he was poked, prodded and sliced while they were experimenting on him.  I really liked his relationship with Groot as well.  One of the moments that made me laugh was Rocket’s conversation with his “house plant,” where they discussed their next move.

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Ben:  It’s basically an internal monologue for Rocket.

Gar:  Absolutely.  Let’s talk a bit about writer-director James Gunn’s work.  I thought the action scenes were great.  They were well structured, and characters were using the environment.  I’m thinking about the first one, this “Raiders”-inspired set piece where Peter steals an important artifact.  A hole gets blown in the wall of this temple, and a couple beats later, our hero uses it as his escape route.

Ben:  Gunn nailed the action scenes.  Clear sense of geography, cause-and-effect, scale — all things lacking from a lot of loud, dumb blockbusters.

Gar:  The smaller ships pushing Ronan’s much larger vessel was a great visual.

Ben:  The will of many against one fanatic.  Fancy that, a visual metaphor in a popcorn flick!

Gar:  You don’t say!  The other thing I really appreciated about Gunn’s work was the way he managed the tonal shifts, from laugh-out-loud comedy to real pathos.  You’ve got Rocket’s monologue or Peter reading the letter from his mother. Ben:  The moment that absolutely got to me:  “We are Groot.”  As he was saying it, I expected “We are friends,” but what they went with was much stronger.

Gar:  So much stronger!  It would have been corny and out-of-character if he had said “We are friends.”  Anything else you wanna talk about, Ben?

Ben:  Can’t wait for the sequel!

Gar:  Me too.  Thanks for doing this!  We’ll have to do it again.

Dancing Groot