Thursday, July 16, 2015

THE LITTLE HERO THAT COULD: "Ant-Man" Is An Atypical But EnjoyableMarvel Film [MINOR SPOILERS]

Anyone who’s ever watched any amount of television knows of the staple that is the “Really Big Episode(s)”. You know what I’m talking about: The big, multi-part story epic that takes at least two (maybe three) episodes to tell; a game changer where the stakes for the characters are so high that it leaves the protagonists, and the audience, exhausted at the conclusion. What usually follows is a quieter episode, sometimes a “day-in-the-life” scenario; an episode where both protagonist and viewer can take a breather and re-settle into the status quo before the next “event” hits; in other words, a small episode.

If we’re to treat the cinematic output from Marvel Studios as part of one grandiose narrative, then Ant-Man is that small episode. It serves as an appropriate coda to Marvel’s “Phase II” of films, Avengers: Age of Ultron having served as its bombastic climax. It’s everything that A:AUO, or any of the previous Marvel films, isn’t…and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Ant-Man is a super-hero/Mission: Impossible-esque heist film hybrid which follows breaking-and-entering artist Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who, upon release from doing time for a major, attention-calling heist, resolves to go legit; however, his attempts at legitimacy are thwarted by his larcenous past. His troubles are compounded by his forced estrangement from his daughter by his ex-wife Maggie’s (Judy Greer) new fiancé, an overbearing cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Unbeknownst to Lang, his criminal exploits have caught the interest of one Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. associate who enlists him to commit the clichéd “one more job” with the aid of a miniaturization suit to reclaim Pym’s technology, that was appropriated by Cross Industries CEO and Pym’s one-time protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Reluctantly aiding Lang in this endeavor is Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is Cross’ corporate right-hand and is not only estranged from her father, but harbors an intense resentment towards Lang as well.

In terms of scope, again, Ant-Man is, pun intended, small. Whereas the previous films (and their respective protagonists) in Marvel Studio’s catalogue are larger than life, Ant-Man, the film and character, is more down-to-earth, it’s tone and execution somewhere between lofty super-hero demagoguery and the grim, street-level aesthetic as seen on the Netflix series Daredevil. Despite it’s relatively high stakes, Ant-Man feels like a quiet, indie film (well, as quiet as a story replete with super-heroes and villains, tech, and explosions will allow). If the feeling of the film is to be described in one word, it would be “intimate”.  It feels intimate. It’s perhaps one of the most intimate super-hero films ever filmed. More than any previous Marvel film, it’s relationships that take front and center. It’s also thematically rich. Both Lang and Pym’s characters run parallel courses: flawed characters whose pasts have a stranglehold on their present, estranged from their daughters and, to varying degrees, vilified by authority. The film asks whether redemption can be had when a person’s life is so checkered. Also poignant is the theme of generational hand-over, wherein the choice of whom to pass a figurative torch can have consequences for not only those to whom the torch is given, but to those who are passed over.

In any other film, such thematic explorations would unfold heavy-handedly; however, here is where director Peyton Reed veers from the Christopher Nolan-esque path and keeps the tone comically and approachably light. He blends the right amount of pithy and pathos, keeping one from overshadowing the other. This film was reportedly a troubled production, with original director Edgar Wright (who shares screenplay credit along with Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and star Rudd) having left over “creative differences” and various screenplay revisions. You would never know such took place from the finished product, as the film holds your attention even in the quietest of moments.

Paul Rudd’s everyman turned superman is extremely grounded, washboard abs notwithstanding. Scott Lang is the larcenist with a heart of gold frustrated with a system that won’t allow second chances. Rudd’s Lang is also quite charming in a goofy way. Rudd is for Ant-Man what Michael Keaton was to Batman; an unlikely choice of actor to headline a super-hero film. And, much like that casting a generation ago, it works. He’s a fallible hero that one can root for. Douglas’ Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man in the source comics) is as crotchety and stiff as his gait; an interesting acting choice for the usually spry actor. Douglas’ performance is by turns comical and nuanced, serving as straight man to Rudd in many respects, and the two actors bounce off each other almost effortlessly. This film hinges on the mentor/student, father/surrogate son dynamic, and the actors deliver. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is just as strong and dynamic as the two leads. She juggles her character’s pseudo-sibling rivalry with Lang with the conundrum of resenting her father as much as needing his approbation. If she is a damsel-in-distress, it’s of an emotional nature as she is as heroic as the super-hero-in-training is. Much of thecomic relief is provided by Michael Peñz, T.I., and David Dastmalchian as “Luis”, “Dave”, and “Kurt”, respectively; three larcenists of differing expertise whose depictions border on racism. Yet Reed’s direction and the actors' performances offset the caricaturization. The trio provide back-up for “Team Ant-Man”, and do so in engaging, hilarious fashion. Bobby Cannavale takes what could have been a hated unwanted step-father trope and humanizes it. His character is not quite a bad guy; you still don’t want to like him, but it cannot be denied that Paxton is a decent bloke. The short end of the stick award has to go to Judy Greer who, as in the recent Jurassic World, only appears to establish subtextual conflict and not much else. 

The film is not without its faults. For example, the CGI is somewhat uneven, the most glaring example of which are the depictions of the ants, as it takes some time for the viewer to figure out whether the ants are supposed to be organic or mechanical. On the flip side, once Ant-Man goes into shrinking mode, the mundane transforms in size and scope to spectacle (you won’t see raves or sewers in the same way again). The film veers into Interstellar territory at one point, hinting at another corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but takes its own spin on it conceptually and visually…which is especially trippy, for lack of a better term, in 3-D.

Another major sour note is Stoll’s performance as the “Lex Luthor/Luther the Anger Translator love child” antagonist, Darren Cross. His character is disjointed; as if Stoll hasn’t been given enough direction by Reed and, as a result, Stoll seems unsure if the intention of the character is straight or burlesque. His performance is out of sync with the rest of the cast, which makes him unlikeable for all the wrong reasons. Its a misstep that brings a good portion of the film down.

The action is low-key compared to the film that immediately came before it; however. that’s not to say that it’s tiny in any sense. The size changing effects are effectively realized and interestingly applied in combat.  There’s one sequence with a surprise (not so much thanks to commercials) character that utilizes another Marvel Comics storytelling hallmark to great, fun effect, its conclusion is as satisfying as any Hulk/Thor slugfest would be. The film manages to balance the super-heroics with light hearted comedy, a combination that’s reflected in Christopher Beck’s entertaining score. There are other shout outs and Easter eggs to Marvel lore both comic and cinematic, but they work within the story and are not too distracting. It also features one of the better executed yet absurd action climaxes of any film in recent memory. 

Ant-Man is nothing you would expect, and everything you could enjoy. It’s not world-shattering drama, and it shouldn’t be. In the grand scheme of the MCU, it may be a tiny film, but it’s large on heart. It proves that a super-hero film doesn't have to take itself too seriously. It's tongue-in-cheekieness is it's main selling point and makes it what super-hero films should If you're into the genre, then Ant-Man is for you. See it. Don't sell yourself short. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

WHEN SECOND BA-NA-NA BECOMES TOP BA-NA-NA: "Minions" Are Light On Plot But Heavy In Adorableness [Minor Spoilers]

Given that the tiny creatures stole the proverbial show in both Despicable Me films (and have provided social media meme fodder for the years since), it was only a matter of time that the animated, yellow Tic Tacs that are the Minions wound up with their own, stand-alone film. 

The plot starts at the beginning of time, where the Minions (voiced by Pierre Coffin) evolve from single-celled organisms to a tribe seeking an evil genius to follow. When their efforts prove futile, they hide in exile for an unspecified long period of time, wasting away from a lack of purpose until minion Kevin, with the aid of Stuart and Bob, goes back out into the world to find a evil overlord worthy of following, Their efforts eventually lead them to 1968 New York and, eventually, to the evil Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her swingin' husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), who vie for control of the British monarchy. 

The plot is threadbare, but in a film like this there really is no need of one as this film is not Despicable Me. In that film, the strength of the Minions as characters came from their non-sequeteur shenanigans, which countered some of the film's angst. That's not to say that there isn't any drama here; Kevin's quest is one of recognition as much as it is for the good of the Minions, for example. But the drama, such as it is, is minimal because the story really serves to allow the Minions to have a purpose to their manic, adorable antics for an hour and a half. That being said, the voice actors, which also include Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Jennifer Saunders, and Geoffrey Rush as the narrator, are clearly having a good time with the material. As Scarlett Overkill, Ms. Bullock is no "Cruella De Ville"; however, her performance services the story well though it pales by comparison to Hamm's Herb, who practically steals the scenes from her...and even from the Minions themselves a couple of times. 

The Despicable Me series of films' go-to themes of family, self-actualization, and overcoming adversity are revisited here, with more cute and cuddly results. If nothing else, this films prove that the Minions are the real backbone of the entire franchise. The film moves at a brisk pace, every moment entertaining. The animation detail is what you've come to expect from these films, i.e. detailed, bright, and enjoyable; even the most tertiary of characters are beguiling, with one in particular midway through the film being a particular standout.

In all, Minions is zany, madcap fun, replete with pop culture nods, crisp computer animation, and delightful vocal performances. It's really difficult to review a film like this because it is less a movie and more a string of vignettes that entertain to varying degrees. Regardless, this is a film that will delight both children and adults, and is guaranteed to have one leaving the theatre with a smile on their face. 

Friday, June 26, 2015


No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

The above quote is from Justice Anthony Kennedy in today's Supreme Court landmark ruling regarding same-sex marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges.

It's not so much that the times are changing as much as our country is starting to catch up with the times.

Or, put more's about damned time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

EXTINCTION AVERTED: "Jurassic World" Reinvigorates A Stagnant Franchise [MINOR SPOILERS].

Have you seen the trailer for the upcoming Vacation reboot? It showcases a scene from the film that contains this batch of dialogue:
     “So, you want to redo your vacation from thirty years ago?”
     "This’ll be completely different."
     “I’ve never even heard of the original vacation.”
     “Doesn’t matter; the new vacation will stand on its own, okay?”
When films get meta with their dialogue, you know there’s a giant elephant in the room.  Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow (who also served as screenwriter alongside Rick Jarra, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly), is well aware of its own elephant; or, in this case, dinosaur.  “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” claims Park Operations Manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who addresses that very sentiment in this franchise-reboot-that-isn’t. Taking place twenty some years after the events of the original Steven Spielberg-helmed CGI extravaganza (who serves as executive producer for this outing) both in fiction and reality, the film reveals it's self-awareness with its in-story acknowledgement that an entire generation (or two) has since become jaded with the technical wizardry that brought the original and its sequels to life. 
In the time since the events of Jurassic Park III, Isla Nublar has been rebranded “Jurassic World” and is run by Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn), the CEO of the Masrani Corporation and successor-in-ownership to the island who wants to provide a bigger, better theme-park entertainment for the masses. To that end, he employs bio-engineering scientists to clone dinosaur hybrids to meet that demand; culminating in the appropriately named Indominus Rex.  Claire (Howard) is a workaholic who would rather run the park 24/7 rather than spend some quality time with her park visiting, estranged nephews Gray and Zach Mitchell (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, respectively). When Indominus Rex starts acting erratically, Claire reluctantly enlists the aid of resident Velociraptor expert and trainer, Owen Grady (a rugged Chris Pratt); a man with whom she is most uncomfortable with. As with all previous films in the Jurassic series, when the big, bad dinosaur gets loose, mayhem ensues.
The film follows the current trend (as with the recent flop Poltergeist, the aforementioned Vacation, and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) of creating a whole new franchise upon the bones (or fossils) of what has come before. Brand name recognition is the name of this game, and Jurassic World by its very nature plays it (which also includes some rather over-the-top product placement; in fact, its usage of same is as metatextual as the film itself, given that actual theme parks are replete with store brands littering their landscape). Given the under-performance of relatively original material such as Disney’s Tomorrowland, expect this re-branding to become the norm. These films want to eat that proverbial cake and be taken on its own merits despite riding the coattails of its predecessors, but Jurassic World (disingenuously or subversively, depending on your perspective) tries to serve as commentary to the very nature of the beast/studio that feeds it. Jurassic World the locale is a Disney/Universal studio theme park hybrid brought to the life in a “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” fashion, with Indominus Rex acting as the reptilian epitome of that insatiable corporate need for "bigger and better". The film serves as a cautionary tale even as it revels in the very tenants it cautions against.
The whole “it’s not wise to fool with Mother Nature” trope is a defining hallmark of this series; however, given the ongoing controversy regarding genetic mutation and GMO’s in the food chain, it seems even more topical than ever…especially when said research is done for military application (as epitomized by the character of Vic Hoskins, played with scenery-chewing glee by Vincent D’Onofrio). These allegorical inferences weight the film with more resonance than it probably would have.
Not that it needed it. In terms of pure popcorn summer spectacle, the film is a visual delight. It’s one of the few films wherein the special effects are virtually flawless; surprising given that 3D filming, especially in IMAX, tends to make the weaknesses stand out. The dinosaurs have never seemed so textured or real, and their interactions with the actors are practically seamless; the accuracy of their design, however, is a subject not to be debated here.
If the film is anything to go by, Director Trevorrow, a relative newcomer to the world of blockbuster filmmaking, understands that it’s the suspense as much as the visuals that made Jurassic Park stand out from its lackluster sequels. He paces his scenes with enough apprehensive anticipation that the payoffs are more than effective. In terms of pacing overall, the story has a tight flow that makes its two hour and five minute run time seem shorter than it is. Unfortunately, characterization is sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Subplots regarding family abandonment and emotional distance are given cursory lip service and, quite frankly, add nothing to the narrative; they could have been completely excised and wouldn’t have affected the overall story in the slightest. There are minor continuity issues, with one so particularly glaring as to take one momentarily out of the film; however, for all the fantastical elements in the film, none is more unbelievable than the idea of Claire running all over the Isla Nublar in high heels. Eggs, both Easter and dinosaur, abound for the pterodactyl-eyed fans of the series; but one of the film's strengths is to be able to tell a complete self-contained story that can be viewed without having any knowledge of its cinematic predecessors.
The filmmakers opted to continue the mythology without the original cast of characters, save BD Wong as franchise carryover Dr. Henry Wu, in keeping with its “look-towards-the-future-while-keeping-a-toe-in-the-past” philosophy; a wise decision, for an overabundance of nostalgia would have kept the focus of off Chris Pratt’s surprising performance. Owen could have easily have been played as “Star Lord.v2”; however, Pratt excises charming goofiness and channels a bit of old school rakish, Clark Gable, no-nonsense swagger. His performance is the solid foundation which anchors this film. In terms of character development and growth, such as it is, Bryce Howard’s Clarie gets the most of it. In what starts out as a blank slate performance, she convincingly gets the audience invested in her character’s fate. Yet, one must wonder how many key grips with spritzer bottles were on hand to constantly spray water on her entire body, since she spends most of the movie looking so oiled up one has to wonder if she’s running from dinosaurs or about to mud wrestle one. As her nephews, Simpkins’ and Robinson’s characters exist to give a child’s (or at least, pubescent) point of view and someone for the youngsters to identify with (after all, Jurassic Park, much like its real-life mouse-led counterpart, existed for children, both literal and figurative). Kudos to Trevorror for not allowing the Mitchell brothers to fall victim to the “precocious child” syndrome that plague most movie kids. While the boys seem like jaded know-it-alls in the beginning, it doesn’t last. In the face of pure terror, their reactions ring true, their narrow escapes believable. Despite hiccups in their individual acting styles, the two actors do sell their fraternal relationship.
The film's powerful majesty, both in CGI and cinematography, would be undermined if the score were not up to snuff.  Thankfully, Michael Giancchino’s score is up to the challenge, though his mandatory inclusion of maestro John Williams’ themes and motifs reveal the weaknesses within his own original compositions. Nevertheless, they meld together to create an evocative, thrilling, and poignant sound that, while not equal, is to this film what Williams’ orchestrations were to the original.
Ultimately, the question to be asked is whether or not Jurassic World invokes the same wonder and majesty that Jurassic Park did a generation ago. To an arguably lesser degree, it does; but not due to the improvements in special effects, digital or otherwise, over the past twenty-plus years. It’s the focus on the story. The film could have fallen victim to “bigger is better” excess it blatantly extols in self-aware fashion. Instead, it focuses on the more story and relationships (such as they are), which is what drives any storytelling of note…that, and the backdrop of cool looking dinosaurs. No one would be impressed with films just about dinosaurs…the human element is what counts.
If this film serves as any indication, the Jurassic franchise is in no danger of going extinct for the foreseeable future.

Friday, May 22, 2015

PALE AS A GHOST: "Poltergeist" Cannot Exorcize The Specter Of The Original Film

The recent trend of rebooting / remaking / rehashing past franchises shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the decrying of Hollywood’s lack of originality, the fact remains that reboots are generally met with success of varying degrees; especially given Hollywood’s belief that today’s generation couldn’t be bothered with the films their parents grew up with. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Poltergeist is added to the ranks. However, reboots carry new sensibilities and new spins on familiar situations; some work, some don’t. Further, to remake a film, franchise, etc., will inevitably invite comparisons to the original.  In the case of this 2015 retelling of this classic film, the proverbial devil is in the details, but unfortunately a satisfying experience they do not make.
The situation is the exactly the same.  A family moves into a house on a new development project. However, the house is haunted by restless spirits known as “poltergeists” which kidnap the family’s youngest daughter. Thus, the parents resort to extraordinary means to get her back. The original film 1982 film directed by Tobe Hooper and executive produced and primarily written by Steven Spielberg, considered one of the seminal horror films of the 1980s, casts a long shadow. Director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire seem painfully aware of that fact, as the specter of the original casts a shroud over the entire production, right down to the changing of the main characters’ names and, in some cases, genders (the house is even devoid of a swimming pool). The thing about the original film was that, despite the supernatural shenanigans that took place on the screen, the true horror came from the film’s allegorical take on man’s greed and duplicitous nature, which was the payoff in the film’s climax. Here, it is addressed one-third into the film then discarded; a clear indication that things will be different for those who have seen the original, but by the same token robs any power this film might have had because it gives nothing equally potent to match it. But when one considers that Sam Raimi of Evil Dead and Darkman fame is one of the producers, one can expect less outright scares and more humorous, tongue-in-cheek spooks.  
Given the technological special effects advances in the past thirty years, a lot that went implied in the first film is given a more in-your-face, literal interpretation which, while more potent visually, incongruously minimizes the horror empirically; though Kenan is not above using techniques that can be currently found in a “Halloween Horror Night” attraction. There are a lot of modern touches and sensibilities that update the story. The use of electronics and drones that pierce dimensional barriers, for example, that renders the film more sci-fi than horror. What (scant) scares do come stem from the modern “jump scare” style of filmmaking, making it seem more derivative than it already is. Though the film is not a parody, there are moments that it seems to veer towards it. The set ups engender more anticipatory giggles than fearful foreboding (That being said, anyone afflicted with coulrophobia would be wise to avoid this film).
With a runtime of 93 minutes, the film seems almost like the Cliff Notes of a story. Instead of taking the time of building actual suspense, Kenan’s direction moves at a quick pace, as if impatient to get to the next scary moment or “isn’t this cool” shot. If there was ever a horror film of the modern era that suffered from attention deficit syndrome, this one is it. 
Unfortunately, another aspect as to why the scares are deficient stem from the fact that it's hard for a viewer to become invested in one-dimensional characters who are engaged in hinted-at character arcs that do not allow for any emotional payoff. As patriarch Eric Bowen, Sam Rockwell is basically playing Sam Rockwell, and an annoying one at that. His performance is so lackluster the viewer has no clear indication as to where he’s emotionally at. As his wife Amy, Rosemarie DeWitt is appropriately distraught, fragile, and fallible. The most charismatic performance comes from Kyle Catlett as the precocious and endearing Griffin Bowen, who’s perhaps the most capable of the entire family and has the closest thing to a character arc. Kennedi Clements as Madison Bowen is cute and vulnerable, which seems to be the only requirement for this character in either version of the story. The only other performance that stands out is Jared Harris as the “exploitive-television personality-paranormal investigator-John Edwards” analogue Carrigan Burke, who takes the place of Zelda Rubinstein’s “Tangina” from the original. His character is earnestly entertaining; however, what character arc he has and shares with fellow paranormal investigator Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), is given lip-service only with a relatively minor payoff.
Poltergeist is, in a word, perfunctory. At best, it’s a superficial, gee-whiz yet lackluster summary of a story that unfortunately has no meat to it. What is missing is any empathy for the characters or their situation, or any subtext that the best horror films are infused with. Unfortunately, cheesy though the effects may be to the modern eye, the specter of the original 1982 film hangs over this one like a shroud, and not even an exorcism can salvage it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

AGING WELL: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" Keeps Up The Stride Of The Marvel Movie-Making Machine [MILD SPOILERS]

Way back in May, 2012, I concluded my review of Marvel's The Avengers with the following statement:
"Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!"
Three years later, we have the answer in the form of Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cinematic bombast of flash and spectacle guaranteed to leave the viewer exhausted by the end of the film, yet still somehow left wanting more.
The film begins at a breakneck pace, with the Avengers, comprising of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruafflo and Lou Ferrigno), Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) invading an overseas H.Y.D.R.A. secret base in order to retrieve Loki’s scepter. Upon realizing that the artifact holds the secret to developing AI technology that could create a peacekeeping force that would obviate the necessity of the Avengers, Stark enlists Banner's aid to create Ultron (James Spader, Less Than Zero; Sex, Lies, & Videotape), a robot meant to be the first line of defense against interplanetary threat. However, upon gaining sentience, Ultron reinterprets its directive to assert that the only way to save humanity is to destroy it and, with the aid of the super-powered twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla; Kick-Ass) and Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen; Godzilla, Oldboy), sets out to destroy without but not before destroying The Avengers from within.
One of the main obstacles this film had going in was that the first Avengers was so epic in scope and execution that the sequel had to be even bigger in all respects. Joss Whedon, both director and scriptwriter, accepted said challenge. The need for character introductions having been obviated by all previous Marvel films, Whedon wastes no time with exposition; which is incongruously both its strength and weakness. Plot-wise, many assumptions are made in the beginning without fully being logically reasoned out and, while jarring, this “cliff notes” approach makes sense given that Whedon crams as much action and character interaction within a two hour, twenty minute time frame; which he does with mostly positive results.
Whedon's main strength as a story teller has been characterization, and it shows here; though he has the advantage in that the main players wear their roles like a second skin (including Samuel L. Jackson as a weary Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill).  Nevertheless, Whedon's ability to juggle the screen time of the main cast is to be commended.  Hawkeye and The Hulk are given more to do this time around, which is likely due to the fact that neither carry a Marvel franchise of their own. Unfortunately, Thor is given the short shrift in terms of characterization, but it is by no means a slight as his own journey is still essential to the plot.  There is really little to say about the main cast other than the fact that despite having played these characters many times before, there is no sense of “been there, done that” fatigue that afflict most heroic franchise actors (looking at you, Christian Bale); in some cases, quite the opposite. Evans’ seems even more invested in the Captain America persona than ever. A subplot involving The Incredible Hulk and The Black Widow adds a new wrinkle that allows for an extra bit of spice to Ruafflo’s and Johannsen’s performances.  Downy, Jr. continues Tony Stark’s cinematic psychological evolution, his manic performance bringing in all of Stark’s previous experiences to bear in a manner that drives the central conceit of the plot forward. Renner’s Hawkeye is also given an added character development that grounds the film with a much needed and necessary human element. 
Of the newcomers, Spader, who provided motion capture work along with voice over, chews the scenery as the malevolent Ultron. His engaging in sardonic colloquialisms is a bit jarring at first, but a refreshing change of pace from the usual robotic intonations of robots in other films. Both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen bring youthful, brashly cocky energy to their roles and their performances mesh well with the original six. Also of note is Marvel mainstay Paul Bettany in his roles as both Jarvis and the Vision, as he imbues both AI constructs with surprising poignancy. Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie make extended cameos as James Rhodes/War Machine and Sam Wilson/The Falcon, respectively; their presence adding welcome comic relief.
The film teeters on political commentary. Though the words “liberal” and “conservative” are never uttered, the ideological lines between offensive versus defensive warfare are clearly drawn and debated, though given the events of the film more weight is given to one side. Whedon manages to incorporate it into the story without either being heavy-handed or losing sight of the fact that this is a superhero film. However, this does lead to one of the few missteps in the film: The overused “hero v. hero” trope. While it fits within the story’s context, it takes place too frequently here. Its inclusion is understandable given that AoU serves as a thematic precursor to the plot of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War (as well as set-up for Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War) but within the context of a self-contained film, it's tiresome despite its impressive spectacle of presentation. However, it's not only a narrative staple of the Marvel “brand”, but it serves as required counterpoint to their heroism at the film’s climax. It’s refreshing to know that the filmmakers are aware of the types of heroes they are, with the ability to “beat the bad guys” while ensuring the safety of civilians, and inspiring hope while doing so. Warner Bros. should be taking notes.
Another annoying trope is the “Hollywood-think” of “we’re paying this actor to play this role so we’re getting our money’s worth by seeing his/her face.” All well and good, but when one is going to see a movie about superheroes, they expect to see said superheroes in their full regalia on screen, not have Steve Rogers wearing the majority of his costume sans mask/helmet. (Never mind the fact the amount of times Steve is referred to by his nom de guerre can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. He’s Captain America when in action! Don’t shy away from that! Embrace it! Sheesh!)
The special effects are top notch, with special mention towards the CGI renderings of both The Hulk and Ultron, though the 3D viewings showcase their relatively minor weaknesses. The battle scenes are exciting; well-orchestrated and choreographed, even if some beats go on far longer than they should. In fact, so much is thrown onto the screen, it almost leads to sensory overload, especially in IMAX 3D. If the intent was to create a roller coaster effect while remaining stationary, it succeeds. It should be noted that said success is bolstered by the musical arrangements of Brian Tyler accompanied by Danny Elfman, who manages to improve upon Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme. While Tyler has said in interviews that he wanted to create a score reminiscent of John Williams’ Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) (though more heavily on the latter than the former), it’s Elfman’s contributions that are more evocative of those classics. Their combined effort is a sublime acoustical experience which offers subtle integrations of the heroic themes from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Thor: The Dark World (2013) (the latter two also by Tyler). Unfortunately, much of the score’s nuance (yes, there is nuance) is lost amid the sound effects. Nevertheless, it effectively does what any good score should do, which is highlight and season the unfolding events for maximum visceral punch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron starts 2015 summer season with a nuclear bang, filled with even more thrills, chills, pathos, triumph, and fun than its predecessor, even if it verges on taking itself way too seriously.  In conclusion…well…please refer back to the quote referenced above.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Periodically, American Culture Critic will host guest reviews. The first of these appears below, as special correspondent Jim Chiu has generously and graciously donated his time to pen the review of the polarizing film Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, which appears below. Many thanks, Jim.
"Fifty Shades of Grey was a surprise for me. It is difficult, when a film receives as much hype as Fifty Shades has, to go in without expectations. However, I was pleasantly taken aback by the cinematic work I ended up viewing.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a film whose underlying theme is contrast and dichotomy. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jaime Dornan) are two polar opposites who engage in a whirlwind romance. Unfortunately, this film plays out more as a tragedy than a romance film. But before we get to that, let me play homage to the people who really brought this film to life: the production crew.
Returning to the themes of contrast and dichotomy, the production crew, from cinematographers to wardrobe to set designers, all clearly worked with a unified vision in order to highlight them. Anastasia Steele’s apartment is exactly what one would see in a college apartment. It is chaotic and eclectic.  Christian Grey’s office and home are cold stone and devoid of warm colors. The only room in Christian’s home with any color in it is his “red room of pain.” Each set piece highlights an aspect of the characters’ life. Moving from set piece to set piece colors the interaction between the characters.
The inestimable Danny Elfman’s work is amazing in this film. His musical choices complement each scene and create an ambiance in which the actors play their roles. From the college rock on campus and in bars to the dark orchestral pieces that play in the “red room of pain,” Mr. Elfman’s touch cannot be mistaken.
The cinematography is masterful in this film, which especially heightens the use of contrast visually and thematically. Great care was taken to ensure the “red room of pain” scenes enjoyed the warmest lighting, creating contrast shadows and at the same time, it felt like the focus was brought to razor sharpness. These scenes were the show piece of the film and mean to communicate the fact that, in these moments, both characters felt more passion, more clarity, and more intensity than any other spent outside this room.
All this excellent work is wrapped around a story that is controversial to say the least. I feel it is outside the scope of this review to tackle the social topic of abusive relationships, so we will focus on the storytelling. Anastasia and Christian are not only a couple at odds with each other, but with themselves. Each character is found battling their own nature and their own perceived limitations throughout the film. Unfortunately, this can come off as a bit sophomoric in its delivery. Anastasia’s attempt to deny her attraction towards Christian is an excellent example of this. That said, there was an incredible amount of subtly to both actor’s performances as what was not said was just as important as what was said out loud.
Overall, while this film stumbles in places, Fifty Shades of Grey was an impressive and intense piece of filmmaking."