The Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

The Marvel Universe is getting more and more crowded, and in some cases, cloudier and cloudier. I haven’t followed all of them, and some of them I’ve forgotten–but I plod along and try to keep up. 2012’s “The Avengers” seemed to be the best of the Universe, pitting fine actors in fine getups against interesting and entertaining villains for a 2 and a half hour long joyride. I thought Joss Whedon was the perfect guy to bring all of that together, and he’s called upon again to make lightning strike twice.

The Avengers are brought back together, this time to stop a genetic experiment headed by Hydra, a terrorist organization that exists in the Universe. They discover two new mutant kids (which gets dangerously close to “X-Men” fodder) from a place called Sokovia. The new kids are twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro can move at the speed of light, and Wanda can manipulate people’s thoughts and also send out bursts of red energy. They’re somewhat effective but also raw since they haven’t been properly cultivated yet.

While the Avengers are crashing this mission, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., always appealing) is hit with a “vision” by Wanda, projecting the Avengers’ deaths. He believes the world needs a “coat of armor” to shield us from evil. With that, he wants to create something called “Ultron”, which is artificial intelligence harvested from a scepter. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), becomes the Frankenstein’s monster and main villain of the film, breaking off from the idea of protecting the world by thinking it has to destroy it. Everybody, including Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the best of the Hulk/Banner actors thus far), sort of blames Stark for this new issue that they all have to stop. Meanwhile, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has begun to have feelings for Banner, and the two of them share a few moments of reluctant passion–but Banner has cold feet due to his wild and unpredictable counterpart.

The other subplots include ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) revealing he has a family, Steve Rogers aka Captain America may feel unnecessary when a war isn’t being waged, and Nick Fury from S.H.I.E.L.D. still wants to be part of the gang. Ultron wants to destroy the Avengers before destroying the world, and enlists the help of the Maximoffs, who at first are compliant with his idea.

But, an unexpected thing happens as Ultron tries to improve itself with something that turns out to manifest itself as another potential hero. Vision (Paul Bettany) turns out to bear one of the Infinity Stones on his brow, but wants to help for good rather than help Ultron once he is unleashed by Thor. Vision becomes somewhat paternal to the Avengers, even though every scene he’s on screen I keep thinking someone’s going to ask him, “Who are you and what are you doing here, noob?”

Ultron clashes with the Avengers throughout the film, causing massive destruction to poor Sokovia, but loses the Maximoffs to the good side eventually. By the film’s climax, it’s pretty evident whoever wins, Sokovia loses big time. That place gets absolutely demolished.

It brings me to an epiphany that I first had while watching “Man of Steel”–shouldn’t superheroes have just a little bit of regard for the place they’re saving? I know that these movies have to keep upping the ante–but really, there’s not going to be an earth enough left to save if these guys (and gals) don’t show a little bit of restraint when it comes to destroying bridges and building structures. It’s also amazing that barely any Sokovian gets hurt during the deluge. They keep finding ways to survive out of massive earthquakes–I guess it speaks to their strength as a people, but it’s a bit…you know, hard to believe.

Most of the film’s running time is packed with action, explosions and noise. In the first film, this formula seemed to work better. Maybe because there was a central narrative at work, focusing on the right characters and giving everybody a good amount of screen time. Here, the characters seem rushed into the next action sequence, barely given enough time to breathe–and when they are, it’s not that interesting. Everything from the first film is copied here, as a sequel would, and it just seems to be more retread than refreshing. While the first film was a rip roaring adventure with a lot of laughs, this one dulled by its third act.

It’s not that the characters aren’t appealing–and Whedon does get a lot of out of them. But we’ve seen all of this before, and Ultron just doesn’t come through as a great villain. He’s got all the tropes, but sometimes he’s silly and unconvincing.

The Universe will keep expanding, but the more things expand, the closer it gets to snapping and falling apart.

My rating: :?

Iron Man 3

May 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

I had to go back and look up my review of “Iron Man 2” to remember what I thought of it. That seems to be standard operating procedure when it comes to comic book movies lately. Years ago I used to read comic books, and I enjoyed them. But they disappeared from my mind almost the instant my eyes finished the last panel. It’s not that they’re not worth remembering; it’s just that for the most part, there’s nothing to remember. I’d read it, enjoy it, and move on. That’s not including the deeper graphic novels I’ve read such as “Watchmen”, “The Sandman” or “From Hell”. Even mini-series such as “Midnight Nation” and certain storylines of major super heroes like “The Dark Knight Returns” have resonated in my mind. But something like a random “Superman” or “Punisher” comic tends to be nothing more than eye candy.

That’s pretty much the equivalent of a summer blockbuster, too. They’re not meant to challenge your brain or make you think about anything. And the good ones will keep your mind occupied so that when you’re ready to flush it out, it isn’t a painful experience. Maybe movies like these don’t really need to stay in your memory anyway.

That was my approach to “Iron Man 3”. When I had read my review, I did recall a few things from part 2. I didn’t find it to be as entertaining as “Iron Man” mainly because it was more of the same, which is true of a lot of sequels. I enjoyed elements of it, mostly concerning Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, which is always a treat. So going into “Iron Man 3”, I suppose I had really no expectations. I’ve found that’s the best way to enjoy a movie like this. Then again, it didn’t help when it came to “Men in Black 3”. But sometimes movies disappoint without expectations at all.

“Iron Man 3” did not disappoint; on the contrary, I was pleasantly entertained. Downey, Jr. returns as the deadpan but smug and thoroughly egotistical Tony Stark. This time he’s remembered a time when he blew off a potential client, named Aldrich Killian (played well by Guy Pearce). It was 1999, and New Year’s Eve, and Stark had females on his mind, a “botanist” named Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). She began developing something that later becomes known as “Extremis”, a volcanic virus inside you that helps heal your physical disabilities while also turning you bright red. Killian comes off as a bit nerdy and clingy for Tony’s liking, and so he leaves him high and dry.

This turns out to be a big mistake for Stark as now Killian has fully developed the virus “Extremis” and plans on using it for his own benefit, at the expense of Tony Stark’s life. But Stark isn’t the only one targeted. He also has a thing for his wife, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) who was at one time Stark’s assistant.

Another villain trolling around known as the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley), who is threatening the President and all of America to terrorize anyone and anything he can to make his statement about…whatever it is he is making a statement about. This catches the eye of Stark enough to threaten him, and tells the Mandarin publicly what his home address is.

Next thing you know, Stark’s home is destroyed and all of his toys with it. Except one suit, which gets so badly damaged that Stark has to practically build it from scratch. He has a little bit of help, after being dumped in Tennessee due to his artificial assistant JARVIS using a flight plan previously made by Stark to investigate the Mandarin. He meets a kid named Harley (nicely played by Ty Simpkins) who is also handy with electronics, and the two form a small bond as they help each other out of their respective jams.

There’s a twist about the Mandarin I won’t give away but you shouldn’t be too surprised when it happens. There really isn’t anything that surprises in a film like this–it really is just a blow-em-up with all the bells and whistles. What makes it fun is Downey Jr.’s performance, some big laughs, some sweet moments between him and Harley and him and Pepper, and there’s a very funny scene involving Kingsley that makes his performance one of the best in the film.

It’s another “getaway” movie. It really doesn’t take itself that seriously, and it doesn’t beat you over the head too much with overblown special effects. There is just enough character development thrown in to make it more than just a spectacle for the eyes.

Out of the three films, I may keep this one in mind the most. I liked that they raised the stakes a bit for Stark, making him start from scratch, having to pull all of his resources. He gets some help from his buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle, good as always), and Favreau is a delight as Happy. But since Stark has such an easy time being a genius and indestructible hero, it was nice to see him have to lose a little bit so he could really have to fend for himself. He’s also still struggling with his near run in with death back in “The Avengers” (making a nice cross reference), so he has some demons to battle there.

The action scenes are well done, and well written too. This is coming from Shane Black, who directed and co-wrote the film. He is all-too well known in the Hollywood world for being a master of action. He wrote films like “Lethal Weapon”, “The Last Boy Scout”, “Last Action Hero” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, for example. He has just enough wit, and just enough bombastic action in this film to make it a well rounded experience.

My rating: :-)

Flight

November 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

I’m pretty sure if you gave me a few lines of cocaine, an all night binge of drinking and casual sex, I don’t think I could land a malfunctioning plane the very next morning. Of course, I don’t know that I’d function at all the next day. But that’s just the scenario commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has put himself into–and he lands the plane, inverted, and saves 96 out of 102 people on board.

That’s the set up of Rob Zemekis’s new film, and his first live action film since “Cast Away” in 2000. That film, too, had an airpline crisis that wound up leaving Tom Hanks stranded on a deserted island. Here, though, all is well, and the plane…lands.

But that’s not the whole story. After the crash/land, Whitaker sustains a few injuries, as well as his co-pilot (recovering from a coma), and his casual sex partner who happened to be one of the flight attendants, is one of the dead. He’s obviously shaken by this event, and after being offered some pick-me-ups from his dealer (played jovially by John Goodman, who always puts a smile on your face whatever he does), decides he wants to stay clean. That’s a good idea for him, as he’s battled addiction before and lost his marriage and custody of his son over it. Whip is considered a hero to the media and to the people he saved–but the NTSB (a federal investigation bureau assigned to the crash landing) has produced a toxicology report that, if brought to light, could put Whip in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. The positive results of alcohol and cocaine being in his system at the time of the flight and landing mean that the 6 who were killed would be charged as manslaughter against him.

Someone from the pilot union is on Whip’s side, Charlie (played well by the always reliable Bruce Greenwood), and an attourney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), agrees to help Whip and thinks he can have the toxicology report thrown out.

All of this works out well for Whip, who could walk away clean. On top of this, while in the hospital, he meets another recovering addict (of heroin), Nicole (Kelly Reilly). The two of them go off to his father’s old crop dusting ranch, retreating from the media and secluding themselves from outside conflicts. But it’s the inner conflicts that begin to haunt Whip, as he delves back into alcoholism and drives Nicole away. Meanwhile, he tries in vain to reconnect with his ex-wife and son, who kicks him out in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes.

The film is full of dramatic scenes, all of them involving Denzel, delivering his best and most complete performance in years. But while the film has its heart in the right place, and is highly likeable, something is just a little off.

In the first place, I never really bought the NTSB investigation. The media hype alone would have staved off any kind of investigation because it would have been a PR nightmare. This was due to airplane malfunction, not pilot error. The toxicology report would’ve been shredded immediately. Sure, it’s the government and they have a responsibility. And we all know how honorable and trustworthy government agencies are in this great nation, right? …?

Then, there’s a real missed opportunity with the theme of “hero worship” in general. Whip saved 96 lives on a plane that was doomed to kill all on board. Yes, he tries to escape the media. But what if he actually tried to embrace it, like so many do? Book deals, interviews, 60 minutes, talk shows? What if that related to the alcohol abuse, or gave him more of a reason to use again? There’s not a lot of backstory on how much Whip was a user while flying. Did he do these things because that’s the only way he could fly? That’s never really explored.

In fact, the film gets tunnel vision right around the time that Whip and Nicole hide out together. Nicole is completely heroin-free, something else that’s a bit hard to believe since withdrawal from that drug can actually cause death because it’s so intense to get off of.

Then, there’s the religious angle. There are scenes where the film tries to hint at the question of whether God was involved in saving that plane. There’s some symbolism, and there’s one very confused and uncomfortable scene where the co-pilot has awoken from his coma, and he and his wife (who can only speak in “Praise Jesus” words, literally), go from berating him and judging him…to praying with him and telling him everything will be OK. It’s very awkward, and doesn’t do anything to raise the stakes for Whip. Because there’s no direct agenda on what the film’s trying to say about whether God exists or not, it just comes off as flimsy.

While there are stakes in the background for Whip, in the foreground it just doesn’t come across dramatically. I never felt that the investigation was going to find Whip guilty of manslaughter. There is a “courtroom” scene that’s well done, in which Whip finally has to force himself to take responsibility.

But all of this is done in a somewhat muddled way–it’s uncharacteristically unfocused for Zemekis, who is usually in command behind the camera. The film’s title is an obvious double meaning, similar in the way “Cast Away” was. But while it is a wonderful character study of addiction, and Denzel Washington does an incredible job of bringing that to the screen with brutal honesty, the film itself…does not…take…

OK, I’ll spare you the pun. It just doesn’t come together for me in the end. There were some things the film did well, but I think it was missing out on something even bigger. If a guy lands a plane and saves lives but was on drugs, it raises great moral questions

I think there were other questions this film could’ve pondered, too, and it would’ve made it a stronger film.

Iron Man 2

May 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Comic book movie sequels can be a conundrum. While you already have the pressure of being a sequel already, most of the time you’re given the chance to flesh out your hero a little more and give them another villain to work with. You do, however, have the advantage of a lot more material to work with. Marvel is the most prominent icon in comic book movies today, with the successes of The “Spiderman” series, the “X-Men” series, a revamped “Hulk” series, and of course the first “Iron Man”. But the “Iron Man” series has a different kind of approach to its sequel because the function of its hero, Tony Stark, isn’t a tortured soul like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. He’s actually a charismatic billionaire who loves life and loves his money. So the angle here isn’t about morphing into a monster or using super hero strength to counter a nerdy teenage existence. Quite simply, “Iron Man” is about one thing:

Toys. Tony Stark loves his main toy, the Iron Man suit with all its bells and whistles and impossible awesomeness. He doesn’t believe it should go to the military to be used in some liberal agenda. He also believes he’s the only one who can be trusted enough to use it. Copycats have tried and failed; except for an ex-con in Russian whose father used to work with Tony’s father and was exiled from the project. The Russian, played by Mickey Rourke in a very underused role, creates a suit that can rival Iron Man’s power and ability. It also happens to look pretty cool.

Meanwhile, Tony is tangled up in a plot with a group called S.H.I.E.L.D. that knows Tony’s suit can be useful; but Tony himself is useless. Scarlett Johansson plays Black Widow (though she’s never referred to that code name in the fim; she’s Natasha or Natalie), part of the organization, and Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury.

Also, Ivan (Rourke) is lured into a scheme by a rival gun maker named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to build a better Iron Man suit so he can upstage Tony Stark.

This is all well and good, and I think the movie tries to show off how cool it is a little too much. The thing I liked so much about the first film was that it was surprisingly charming and interesting as well as being pretty good to look at. The final battle scene was as hokey as they come; but by that time, the film was already likable enough to where I didn’t care.

But a sequel was not going to really be surprising. We knew what we were getting, ultimately. This wasn’t going to be like “Superman II” or “Spider-man II” or even “X-Men 2”. There was no real growth for Tony. Tony is Tony. He has a bit of a problem with his ticker, but it doesn’t really change who he is. This one’s just louder and more stuff gets blowed up. In a somewhat self-serving and indulgent scene, Tony and his long time pal Rhodey (played this time by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard) get into a big macho fight that leaves Tony’s pad really busted up. And of course their friendship is kind of hurt at that point.

The movie is very predictable and not as enjoyable as the first. There’s a freshness missing; and while Downey, Jr. and Rourkey provide entertaining characters and some nice moments, the movie still is what it is: it’s just an action film. Sure, that’s fine. I still enjoyed that part of it. Perhaps this series is a bit doomed in that regard. Tony will never NOT be Tony, nor will he have room to grow to be more mature. He’s fun and charming, but there’s not anything flawed enough in him to make a real change. In other words, there’s not as much at stake. Not for his character or what will happen to his life. He puts on a suit that’s able to be pulverized by an electronic whip and still survive. He’s still insanely rich; and the future’s bright. I’m not sure where else this story needs to go.

But if there is going to be an “Iron Man 3”, which I feel there will, I think it’s a mistake. The next project for this would be a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” film, or the Avengers. I think the last bit at the end of the film credits reveals that’s probably inevitable. I think that may be a lot more fun than seeing a guy fly around in a metal suit blowing stuff up for two hours for a third time.

My rating: : :|