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)
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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.

Django Unchained (2012)

django-unchained-movie-poster-teaserStarring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, Laura Cayouette

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Expectations: Very high. Tarantino is a big western fan, so there’s no way this can’t be great, right?

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In a single word, Django Unchained is excessive. Excessive in every possible way. Some movies that trade in excess get by because the excess is fun, or in some way in service of the story, but in Django it’s neither (not that an unflinching slavery movie should be fun). Instead it feels more like Tarantino is simply throwing everything he has at the audience when he should be carefully crafting a tale worth telling. I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with Tarantino and his films, but coming off of the expertly crafted Inglourious Basterds I thought for sure he would deliver something truly memorable. And Django is memorable… for all the wrong reasons. Where the script for Basterds was honed over something like 10 years, Django Unchained was written in a few months and thrown into production soon after. This may be a three-hour “epic,” but it definitely feels a lot closer to Death Proof than I would have liked, at least in terms of the quality of the writing.

As the film opens, a couple of slave traders transport a small group of slaves across the rocky hills and the frozen fields “somewhere in Texas.” They are stopped by a jovial man named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is specifically looking for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in hopes that he can help him find a trio of wanted men. Thus begins the tale of Django, a freed slave on his way to becoming a fearsome bounty hunter. Or really, that should read: Thus begins the tale of King Schultz and how he frees Django, but not really.

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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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Mini-Review: African Cats (2011)

African Cats (2011)

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey

Expectations: Moderate, I like cats but I haven’t been too fond of the recent Disney Nature productions.


I’m a huge fan of nature, the Earth and all kinds of documentaries documenting the occurrences in the natural world. In this sense I enjoyed Disney Nature’s latest theatrical endeavor, African Cats, but I cannot simply leave it at that. The film relates the story of a river in Kenya and the two lion’s prides that control each side of the river, as well as the story of a mother cheetah and her five small cubs. As a premise this works, but in practice Disney chooses to dumb everything down into basic terms of good vs. evil, and instead of relating any useful information about these cats, it only shows the day-to-day struggle. The film has no goal, no message, and nothing to offer other than pretty pictures. One group of lions is viewed as the true rulers of the river, but one day when the river is low the evil, dark-maned lion Kali crosses the divide and attacks! Oh no! I don’t doubt that this constant push-and-pull goes on, but I don’t like the demonization of one group of lions over another. They are lions, not humans.

The music is atrocious as well. Even in its best moments, it is very derivative of Howard Shore’s wonderful Lord of the Rings score and for me that just doesn’t work over the plains of Africa. I don’t know, maybe the music should sound somewhat African? Evoke a place for God’s sake, and that place shouldn’t be Middle Earth. Most of the movie is heavily scored too, so the music is virtually inescapable. Equally and possibly more inescapable is the ridiculous narration. Samuel L. Jackson is not the problem, but the script definitely is. I realize that they’re aiming the narration at children and families, but do we really need nearly constant play-by-play commentary on the minutia of what we’re watching on-screen? Documentary narration should seek to impart some information that cannot be passed on through the visuals, adding something on top. Here it rarely goes beyond pointing out the obvious.

If nothing else, it is pretty to look at. The photography is excellent and does a wonderful job of capturing the animals of the plains in stunning detail. In addition to cats there are a wide variety of animals on display, from wildebeests to elephants. The focus is on the cats though, and in the film’s best moments it is a real treat to see little lion cubs pouncing on one another, or to hear all the different vocalizations of the cheetahs. I don’t regret watching African Cats, but I feel that what could have been a home run falls short because of its over-produced nature. Less (and better) music, less narration and it could have been great.

Mini-Review: The Other Guys (2010)

The Other Guys (2010)

Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Dwayne Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Ray Stevenson, Rob Riggle, Damon Wayans, Jr., Michael Delane

Directed by Adam McKay

Expectations: None whatsoever. It’s a mainstream comedy, the bane of my existence.


Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell are buddy cops always playing second fiddle to better men. Ferrell is content in this role as a desk man, but Wahlberg has an intense desire to get out of the office and bust some perps like the big boys. Together they do all the arguing and bungling you’d expect from this type of film, but the comedy is actually funnier than it would appear at first glance, making The Other Guys a relatively okay film. Adam McKay’s direction leaves something to be desired, though, with the action sequences devolving into boring, derivative, handheld bullshit where nothing is clear. The film is also ridiculously overlong, needing a good twenty minutes cut out to keep the pace moving quickly and limit the time between quality jokes. I have to give them credit, though, a mainstream comedy winning me over, even incrementally, is something of an achievement.

The cameos by Samuel Jackson and The Rock were fantastic, and you’ll most likely find yourself saying, “Aim for the bushes!” before laughing to yourself for quite some time after watching The Other Guys. In a comedy the barometer of quality should be how much it made you laugh, and on that note, The Other Guys does pretty well. Mark Wahlberg is funnier than expected and Will Ferrell is more subdued than expected. This might sound like an odd role reversal, but the film seems to work because of it. I can only imagine the film being even more dull in its dull moments if they had gone with the more traditional roles for the two leads. The Other Guys is also something of an education on the recent financial meltdown for those that like to get their news from Will Ferrell movies. It doesn’t entirely work, but it is somewhat admirable to see a big budget movie try to address real issues in between dick jokes.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Steve Park, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Rosie Perez, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Martin Lawrence

Directed by Spike Lee

Expectations: I’ve seen this a few times so I know what I’m getting into.


Do the Right Thing is one hell of a challenging film. I first saw it fairly close after its release, when I was a pre-teen. I had no way to process the feelings it brought up and I don’t remember liking it very much or understanding why it was so popular. I saw it twice more as I aged, coming to appreciate it much more over time. Rewatching it again now, I found it to be even better than I remembered. Backing up a bit, in the months before I started this site I began a personal project to work through Spike Lee’s filmography, much like I’ve been doing with Sam Fuller’s on this website. Watching Do the Right Thing with a knowledge of what Lee’s first two films were informs the viewing experience greatly, as it contains heavy doses of the theatrical style, narrative structure and distinct characters that permeated his first two films.

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