Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterStarring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Claudia Kim, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis

Directed by Joss Whedon

Expectations: Superhero high.

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Let’s just get it out of the way: Avengers: Age of Ultron is not as good as the first Avengers film. It simply does not deliver that same sense of fun comic book action, but the good thing to note is that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really attempt to hit those same notes. It’s fundamentally a different type of film; it’s much darker in tone, and its main purpose seems to be more about setting up future films in the series than telling its own interesting storyline. Part of my problem with Marvel’s Phase 2 films is that they were all fairly unrelated to one another, lacking in even the relatively sparse world-building that existed in the Phase 1 films. Consequently, Avengers: Age of Ultron bears the weight of tying everything together, and this makes it feel like more of a big puzzle piece than a coherent picture all its own.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing — in fact, these threads that lead directly towards Infinity Gauntlet (and less so towards Civil War) were among my favorite scenes in the film. I’ve been a supporter of Marvel’s unprecedented way of bringing comic book storytelling to the big screen, but the main fault in that method is that everything takes so long. The first hints of the Infinity Gems were probably six or seven years ago at this point, and that’s a crushingly long time to wait for something to develop. These are the times I wish I had no knowledge of these things, as then these moments would just be mere hints at something to come instead of ruthless teases. And to think we’re still three years away from actually seeing Thanos bring all the gems together and kick some major ass with them. Sigh.

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Quick Takes: The Wolf of Wall Street, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zombie

wolf_1The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
threehalfstar

Starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Matthew McConaughey
Directed by Martin Scorsese

In my teenage years, when I getting serious about my film obsession, Martin Scorsese was one of my favorite directors. The years haven’t been too kind to our relationship, though, as Scorsese hasn’t made a single film since Kundun that I’ve flat-out loved. The Wolf of Wall Street still isn’t quite there for me, but it is a finely made film that is incredibly entertaining and watchable even at a full three hours. Most importantly, Scorsese successfully dredges up that exuberant energy that made his earlier films sparkle. Leonardo DiCaprio proves (once again) that he deserves one of those coveted Oscar statues, in one of his best performances yet. But honestly, it was Jonah Hill that surprised me the most. Hill is a surprisingly good actor, I guess “surprisingly” because I always wrote him off as “one of those dudes in modern comedies that I don’t like.” While most of the movie is best described as vapid exuberance, it does end up relating something insightful about the American psyche and the power of money. If you’ve been cold on the last few Scorsese films, The Wolf of Wall Street is the real deal.

Dawn_1Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
twohalfstar

Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer
Directed by Matt Reeves

I liked Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but for me it was a big step down from the first one. A lot less emotionally engaging, and all the human characters were cardboard and boring. The story didn’t really grab me either, although I don’t know what else this movie could’ve been about. It’s a movie about the dawn of the war between apes and men, so you kinda have to show why they’re angry at one another, but I think it could have been far better executed. A good majority of the FX work is outstanding, but alongside the amazing stuff are chimps with faces that look flat and completely fake (such as Caesar’s son). I don’t understand why, because Caesar, Koba, Maurice and a good majority of the other apes all look near-real most of the time. Whatever… apes with machines guns made me smile. And they ride horses! The third movie will likely be a pretty hefty action film, but I’m not going in with great expectations after the so-so showing here by director Matt Reeves (who is also directing the third one).

Zombie_Flesh_eatersZombie [Zombi 2] (1979)
AKA Island of the Flesh-Eaters, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, Island of the Living Dead

twohalfstar

Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Stefania D’Amario, Olga Karlatos
Directed by Lucio Fulci

Zombie is surprisingly dull for the most part, except when the zombies come around with their muddy, worm-ridden faces. The characters — if you can even call them that — do some really dumbass shit, and the “story” is like a vague premise with dialogue attached to it. It’s seriously not much more than: A woman searches for her father on a strange island where the dead rise from their graves. And the search for Daddy isn’t even that big of a deal, as it’s pretty clear from the first scene what happened to him. The last half hour or so is pure zombie killin’ entertainment, though, and the gore throughout is awesome. Lots of great flesh-rippin’ bites and other gruesome sights, especially the bit where a splintered wood beam pierces through a character’s eye!

Quick Takes: Ride Along, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Afternoon Delight

ride_along_xlgRide Along (2014)
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Starring Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Bryan Callen, Laurence Fishburne, Dragos Bucur, Gary Owen, Jacob Latimore, Jay Pharoah, Benjamin Flores Jr.
Directed by Tim Story

Like many action comedies, it would be easy to rip Ride Along for having a dumb plot and sequences where our heroes would never survive if it were real life. But action comedies aren’t real life, so as long as I’m laughing more than I’m not, I’m happy. Ride Along made me happy. Ride Along has gotten fairly dismal reviews from almost everyone, and while I can’t defend it as some great piece of cinema, it’s definitely more fun than the consensus makes it appear. What it comes down to is that I think Kevin Hart is funny, and I also love me some Ice Cube. Together they make a great comedy duo. The action could have been shot better, but this is a small complaint in a quick, fun, entertaining movie. Clear your mind for a night and just ride along with it.

a92058kywgvRise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
threehalfstar

Starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, Ty Olsson, David Hewlett
Directed by Rupert Wyatt

I love the original Planet of the Apes films, but after seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes I think it might be hard to go back. I’m shocked how much I enjoyed this one. You really couldn’t ask for a better modern take on the Planet of the Apes saga, although I do wonder if they’ll stick with CG for the more evolved humanoid apes if they continue the series. I suppose they will, but Rick Baker’s makeup from Tim Burton’s 2001 remake was so good I kinda wish they’d do that again. Anyway, if you’ve been on the fence for the last few years, definitely watch this one! By focusing the story on a single ape, we are able to feel for the character, right down to the point of cheering the apes on during the film’s climactic (and awesome) final act. I can’t wait to see the sequel!

afternoon-delight-posterAfternoon Delight (2013)
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Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Jessica St. Clair, Michaela Watkins, Josh Stamberg, John Kapelos, Keegan Michael Key, Annie Mumolo
Directed by Jill Soloway

Afternoon Delight walks a thin line between drama and dark comedy, delivering both very well and remaining engaging throughout. At least for me. I can imagine this one will split people, as it’s pretty much nothing but spoiled white people problems. They are problems nonetheless, and something as life affecting as being unhappy in a relationship shouldn’t be trivialized. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is the unhappy one in question, and her life changes course when she visits a strip club with her husband and another couple. Rachel becomes somewhat obsessed, or at the very least highly interested, in getting to know McKenna (Juno Temple), the stripper she connected with. One thing leads to another and McKenna is living in Rachel’s spare bedroom. What makes Afternoon Delight so interesting to me is how much director Jill Soloway seems to be saying with the film, without actually saying it. There’s so much to dissect about the character relationships, revealing insightful takes on truth, trust and the relationships that shape our lives. Kathryn Hahn is superb as Rachel, giving a raw, emotional performance that deserves acclaim, and Juno Temple is a perfect, confident complement to Hahn’s nervous energy. Very good, but definitely not for everyone.

Video Book Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films

What’s this? That’s right, I did a video review! I’ve considered doing things like this, as well as appearing on podcasts, for a while now, and this art book presented a perfect opportunity to try out the video review thing. It’s a completely foreign thing for me to do, and surprisingly I recorded it all in one take with no edits! I also did all my own stunts. Paper cuts are a real concern when you’re doing something like this. While I was unable to secure the insurance necessary for the shoot, I threw caution to the wind and shot it anyway! Take that, you bastards in suits!

Anyway…

WATCH as I nervously try to think of what to say next!

SEE as I fumble with turning pages while on-camera!

LISTEN as I go on tangents about CG ruining film and make jokes about apes!

READ what is probably the longest post title you’ll ever see, unless I’m intentionally trying to make one longer!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films was released by Titan Books on July 8, 2014 and it is available now via Amazon and other book retailers! If you’re a fan of the films and are also interesting in filmmaking, definitely consider picking up a copy (preferably by clicking that Amazon box above)!

Disclosure: Titan Books provided me with a review copy of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films.

King Kong (2005)

kingkong_4Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Andy Serkis, Evan Parke, Jamie Bell, Lobo Chan, John Sumner, Craig Hall, Kyle Chandler

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: Surprisingly low. I feel like I just watched this, even though it was like five years ago.

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You know the story of King Kong; there’s no need to recap it. It’s a story so firmly entrenched in the American psyche that I feel like infants only just born could give a fairly good pantomime version of the tragedy. So for this review, I’d like to do something different and focus on the quote that ends both the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake (and probably the 1976 remake also, but I haven’t seen that since I was a kid). The famous quote is, of course, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Ever since I was a kid this line has bothered me. It seemed to resonate with the adults around me, but my young mind just didn’t get it. Clearly the girl didn’t do anything to kill King Kong, so why was she getting blamed? Even in 2005, when I saw Jackson’s version in the theater, I thought largely the same thing. As an adult, I can see that the desired intent is probably to convey that a woman who tries to tame the one she loves will ultimately kill that which she loves about him. Nevermind that she doesn’t actually do any killing, but under this logic she dooms Kong to his fate, and thus beauty “killed” the beast. You could also read it oppositely, that Kong became infatuated with possessing the beautiful girl and thus killed himself by allowing the beauty into his heart. While these explanations might ring true for some relationships, I refuse to accept this as the point of the story, especially in Jackson’s remake.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

returnoftheking_1Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Noble, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Paul Norell, Lawrence Makoare, Sarah McLeod

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


Can I give this one five stars? It took 10 years and more than a few re-watches, but I have finally come around on this one. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved the film, but I also always thought it was the weakest of the trilogy. This time I was struck by how powerful a film Return of the King is, and how well it brings everything set forth in the previous films together. But what this recent change of heart proves to me is that there is no truly standout film from the others. They are all interdependent and equal in their greatness, and I will most likely shift allegiances between the three throughout my lifetime.

Opening with Gollum’s backstory provides us with a glimpse of how he became the creature we’re familiar with, and it also allows the film to open in the quiet green of the Hobbit lands. The Two Towers ends with a lengthy battle sequence at night, finishing a film that contains trial after trial for our fellowship. So to begin the next film in a peaceful, happy place (if only for a few moments) is surprising and brilliant. It reminds us a bit of what the hobbits are fighting for, and shows us the depths of despair, all within that first scene. It also skillfully leads us right back into the thick of things where we can finally reckon with the one ring and finish the journey once and for all.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

2002-lord_of_the_rings_the_two_towers-3Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Parker

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


While Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent opening to the trilogy, The Two Towers has my vote for the best of the bunch. It’s fun to see the Fellowship come together and venture through snowy mountains and deep, dark mines, but once they split and begin their own adventures, the real journey begins. The hopefulness of newfound friends was only a respite from the coming storm of war and villainy, and here in The Two Towers Peter Jackson fully unleashes that force upon viewers. As clichéd as it sounds, this makes The Two Towers the “dark middle” of the trilogy, but eh, what’s a good trilogy if it doesn’t have a dark middle chapter? We have to despair before we can triumph.

I lamented a bit in my review of Fellowship of the Ring that no one had continued the charge with the fantasy film genre, but honestly, after re-watching The Two Towers, I think it’s because no one is confident enough to try to top what Jackson accomplished here. Similar to how I think Jackson is reluctant to return to the splatter genre after Dead Alive — it’s better to drop the mic and walk away than to continue pureeing the dead horse with the lawnmower (so to speak). Imagine you’re a director trying to mount a fantasy epic. Jackson was going up against years of fairly lackluster high fantasy filmmaking, but anyone trying now is going up directly against Jackson. Hell, even uber fanboy Guillermo del Toro couldn’t get The Hobbit going, the studios only resolved their legal issues with the rights when Jackson relented and agreed to make the films.

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