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: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Under the Skin, High Road to China

cap2_1Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
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Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier much better than I liked the first Cap movie, but it definitely wasn’t the game-changing superhero movie that I had heard it was. Good thing I don’t expect much other than heroes fighting villains in my superhero movies! Simply put: if you like the Marvel movies, definitely watch this. It features a lot of fun action and a few great things are introduced that will probably deliver more in later movies down the road. I do have to say that I’m surprised by how little any of the post-Avengers movies connect to each other. I don’t think it’s especially necessary, but with the idea that these movies are part of a “phase” now, it does make one think they ought to be more related than they are. But whatever, this one’s got Cap, Black Widow and Falcon all kickin’ ass and takin’ names, so I was more than happy with what I got.

UndertheSkinUnder the Skin (2014)

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

This is why I avoid trailers. Unfortunately, I happened to see the trailer for Under the Skin multiple times over the past few months while I saw repertory screenings at the local arthouse. The trailer is packed full of surreal, engaging imagery, and the marketers even went so far as to use quotes that suppose that director Jonathan Glaser might be an “heir to Kubrick.” So by the time I actually saw Under the Skin, it was thoroughly overhyped and unable to deliver on my expectations. But I definitely liked it. It’s a strange little science fiction movie that creates a significant, believable portrayal of an alien on Earth with effectively no budget and mostly non-professional actors. There’s lots of nudity throughout, and much of it feels gratuitous and only there to add to the film’s hype (given Johansson’s fame). This, in turn, made me imagine the film with the character genders reversed but the nudity the same, and what the reception may have been like then. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be quite the critical darling it seems to be and it probably would’ve been NC-17, too. Apparently, like the men in the film, even critics can succumb to the beauty of Scarlett Johansson.

highroad_1High Road to China (1983)
twohalfstar

Starring Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong, Jack Weston, Wilford Brimley, Robert Morley, Brian Blessed, Cassandra Gava, Michael Sheard
Directed by Brian G. Hutton

High Road to China is an enjoyable, entertaining film… when it’s not being annoying and too slowly paced. I had hoped to see more of China in a film with this title (and considering that it was co-produced by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest), but it really is about the road TO China. The aerial footage of the bi-planes, whether it’s grand scenes of scenic beauty or old-fashioned dogfights, is gorgeous and adds considerably to the film’s draw. Evidently, at the time of release this was seen as a Raiders of the Lost Ark clone, but the two films couldn’t be more different. High Road to China is a much more low-key adventure, with a much less likeable hero, but in this day and age of green screen, CG landscapes, it was wonderful to see actual planes flying in the actual air over the actual mountains. If you’re a Tom Selleck fan, definitely give this one a shot.

Quick Takes: The Lego Movie, Machete Kills, Only God Forgives

lego_movie_ver9The Lego Movie (2014)
twohalfstar

Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Cobie Smulders, Jadon Sand
Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

So pretty much everyone loves this movie, but I just thought it was OK. I also found it ironic that the song Everything is Awesome became so popular among fans of the film, but yet it’s the butt of many jokes about the conformity of the mainstream Lego people in the movie. Whatever. The jokes largely fell flat for me, and while I enjoyed the premise and the imagination on display, it was all too loud and abrasive for my tastes. I did love the little Star Wars cameos and Batman’s hilarious song, though, and I wish the film had more of that kind of comedic brilliance.

machete-kills-new-poster-and-13-new-photos-1Machete Kills (2013)

Starring Danny Trejo, Mel Gibson, Demian Bichir, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofía Vergara, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Hudgens, Alexa Vega, Marko Zaror, Tom Savini, William Sadler
Directed by Robert Rodriguez

This, on the other hand, was pure entertainment for me. Robert Rodriguez makes fun B-Movies, and I love him for it. Machete Kills feels like more of a James Bond spoof than a sequel to Machete, but as long as you like both Machete and Bond (like me), that isn’t an issue. Charlie Sheen is wonderful as the US President, and Mel Gibson definitely makes for a fun asshole villain. The film is somewhat spastic with its ultra-long list of characters, though, which doesn’t allow many of them to get much screen-time. I understand this allows for a long list of celebrities to fill the poster, but quality is usually better than quantity. But this is a B-exploitation flick, so more is better, right?

only_god_forgives_ver6Only God Forgives (2013)
onehalfstar

Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Pitchawat Petchayahon, Charlie Ruedpokanon
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

There are times when I am a film masochist. Despite thinking Refn’s Drive was an overrated, boring mess of staring people, I felt compelled to watch Only God Forgives. I guess being set in Thailand was a big enough draw to pull me in, regardless of my misgivings. Anyway, this one probably has more staring than Drive. There’s even a whole scene where an entire room of people sit and stare, all while a man has his eyes cut out… Refn is clearly preoccupied with all things ocular. Even still, I think I liked this one a hair more than Drive because the exotic, urban Thai locations and the bold uses of color are pretty to look at. It’s also interesting to see what is basically a B-movie all dolled up in artsy clothes, but it’s not something that really works for me. At least in these clothes it doesn’t. For some reason, I still feel compelled to see more of Refn’s work. Like I said, sometimes I’m a film masochist.

The Avengers (2012)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Alexis Denisof

Directed by Joss Whedon

Expectations: High. All of my childhood superhero fantasies are riding on this film.


As I noted above, I had huge expectations for The Avengers. Not because of a trailer; I didn’t watch any of them. Not because of the director, Joss Whedon; I’ve never seen a single thing he’s worked on. No, it’s all based on childhood comic reading, the combined strengths of the preceding films (even if some of them were less than stellar), and good ole gut instinct. The crazy amount of good buzz led me to believe that I wouldn’t be let down, but I’ve been burned so many times by buying into popular opinions and hype that I did my best to wall myself off from these types of influences. I know I’m late to the party with this review, but if you care about comic books in film then you simply must get out and see this sumbitch. Through the entire film I felt like a kid unleashed in a comic book store with a hundred-dollar bill; this was literally everything I could have ever wanted in an Avengers movie. The Avengers is the superhero film turned to eleven and freed of the cursed “origin story” shackles, and so for fans, this is exactly what you’re looking for.

The Avengers has a story, but it’s nothing more than a simple framework to allow the heroes to come together and kick ass. Because this is essentially the sixth film in a long-running series, the characters are all set up and ready to go; we only need to know the simple whys and hows of their current situations. I feel sorry for anyone that didn’t watch the previous films or read any Marvel comics in their youth, because The Avengers just drops you in mid-story and hopes you’re up to speed. This “assemble the team” section goes on a bit too long, but it perfectly sets up the characters as they will relate to one another in this film, as well as setting the stage for the action to come. But realistically, the story is just this: Loki has stolen the Cosmic Cube (here called the Tesseract, but I refuse to call it that!) and seeks to open a portal with it to unleash his space army. There’s not much else in the way of plot, besides the action and some good, if obvious, character development.

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