Latest Reviews
Thursday
Apr302015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I’m in the minority when it comes to the first “Avengers” movie. Though functional, it lacked soul. While others argued that the previous individual heroes’ movies did the heavy lifting of getting them to a certain point, thus allowing it to be a mindless action extravaganza, I saw an empty film, one where the characters ended up exactly where they began. The story was inconsequential, the character progression nonexistent and the tone all over the place. With so many characters and stories to converge into one, such a misfire was not entirely unexpected. But if “The Avengers” was a akin to a juggler calmly juggling three balls—competent, but unimpressive—“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is like a pro juggling flaming swords while hopping on one foot. In nearly every single way, “Age of Ultron” eclipses its predecessor.

In this installment, the Avengers have intercepted Hydra and taken back a scepter that was once wielded by Loki. In the scepter is a powerful gem that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) believes could change the world for the better. With its power, he believes he can create a global defense program called Ultron (James Spader), which will work to keep outside invaders at bay. However, that program eventually gets a mind of its own and decides that the only way to help the world is to destroy it. But first he must take out the Avengers with the help of Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

There was an early moment in “The Avengers” when Captain America (Chris Evans) found himself struggling with the fact that he was frozen solid for 70+ years and everyone he knew and loved, everyone he fought alongside with in the war, was now dead. He was unfamiliar with the modern world and was trying to cope with a situation he didn’t fully understand. The movie then transitioned to Stark in his playboy pad cracking quips. It was an uncomfortable transition, just the first of many that pervaded the entire movie. “Age of Ultron,” on the other hand, does a much better job of mixing drama with comedy, even as the characters joke it up in the midst of a potential apocalyptic event. Whereas only the comedy worked in the last one, the drama here is just as potent as it earns its one big dramatic moment near the end of the film instead of forcing it in like the mishandled Agent Coulson “death” in the original.

Perhaps more importantly, “Age of Ultron” delves into each of these characters more so than (arguably depending on which film we’re talking about), the heroes’ individual stories themselves. You see, Scarlet Witch has the ability to manipulate a person’s psyche, which both serves as an interesting ability in and of itself and as a way to explore the characters’ motivations and fears. The darkest, and perhaps even most thoughtful, moments of the film come during these moments as we see a bit of what fuels the Avengers, particularly Tony Stark as they expand further on the hesitance and anxiety that was explored so wonderfully in the underappreciated “Iron Man 3.” While the film could have and should have explored these angles more, the fact that they’re there at all is nothing short of astounding when you factor in the sheer number of characters writer/director Joss Whedon had to juggle. Each one, even the seemingly less significant characters, receives just enough screen time to help explain who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. These explorations may not be as complex as these characters deserve, but they’re rich with possibilities and if future individual installments continue with the seeds that are planted here, we’re in for a more mature, darker and thematically interesting Marvel universe than we have yet seen.

Yet there are nevertheless some flaws in “Age of Ultron.” Almost all are minor, like Olsen’s inability to keep a consistent accent, though one exception is the half-baked burgeoning romance between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). While the seeds are planted early (and potentially for a future standalone Hulk movie), it’s never developed to a point of relevance. At one point, another character asks about their romance, but one can’t help but wonder how that person even knows, as the flirtatious chemistry isn’t there and she had just met the group for the first time.

But you won’t leave the theater thinking of those things. You’ll leave thinking of the high-flying action, hilarious humor and terrific new villain. Spader is perfectly cast as Ultron, serving up his usual drawn out line readings as he brings a cold, calculated and ultimately frightening layer to what could have otherwise been an emotionless antagonist. As he mocks the human race for their blind faith and frivolous existences, a level of menace that no prior Marvel movie had yet reached is achieved. It’s both a testament to Spader’s talent and Whedon’s writing.

There’s a lot to love about “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Many have said the story is too convoluted for its own good, but my only thought is that they must be comparing it to the original. Of course the story is too convoluted in comparison because even the simplest stories are more convoluted than no story at all. And that is the film’s greatest strength. Rather than rely on the previous films to carry its story and characters like the last film, “Age of Ultron” crafts its own and brings the characters all to interesting points that show great promise for future Marvel films. I’ll admit to feeling superhero fatigue over the last couple years, but “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” has renewed my enthusiasm and if it accurately represents the foundation for future installments, I simply can’t wait to see what comes next.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron receives 4/5

Thursday
Apr022015

Furious 7

Few things in the world of film perplex me more than the popularity behind “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. It’s not so much that people enjoy them—they can indeed be mindless fun—but the passion those fans exert seems like it could be used on something of more substance. Still, one can’t deny the franchise’s effectiveness, at least in the last couple entries. What started as a mediocre (at best) street racing story with poor dramatics and thin characters turned into an over-the-top, jet setting action extravaganza. The franchise retained its poor dramatics and thin characters, but it began to realize what it was, downplaying the things that didn’t work while increasing the action with each successive entry. But this seventh entry has a very been-there-done-that feel to it. They try to up the ante, and do, but the last two films were so exaggerated that it’s a marginal increase at best. “Furious 7,” despite some fun moments, shows pretty clearly that this franchise is running out of steam.

The story this time, as inconsequential as it may be to the overall picture, sees the gang getting back together to collect for a shady government agent (Kurt Russell) a device called God’s Eye that allows them to track down and find anyone on the planet using every technological resource available to them. If they do this, they’ll be able to use it to find Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is on the hunt to take them all out after they severely crippled his thought-to-be-dead brother, the antagonist of the sixth film.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Despite a lengthy set-up with lots of cringe worthy dialogue—including speeches about finding oneself and an extremely poor exploration of Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) PTSD symptoms—there isn’t much filler. In fact, after this set-up, there’s barely a moment to breathe at all, as the film jets from here to there and does things with cars that only a screenwriter in Hollywood could think up.

And boy, are those sequences stylish. Director James Wan, the man behind horror films “Saw” and “The Conjuring,” brings his usual flair to the film, even if he allows the camerawork to get too shaky for its own good; long gone is the fluidity of “Fast and Furious 6” where you could actually see what was going on, a concept that has become novel as action films have tried to up their excitement through manufactured stylistic techniques.

Yet one can’t help but appreciate what Wan brings to the table—you’re not likely to have seen a body slam portrayed in quite the way he does here—but, unfortunately, some of that style is misplaced. Taking a page out of the late Tony Scott’s book, Wan tries to make even the calm moments more interesting with unnecessary camera movements, like when it rapidly rotates around characters as they’re doing nothing more than standing there and talking. It’s an understandable addition; when the rest of the film moves so fast, attempting to mask the boredom with something resembling action makes sense.

But this tactic comes off as silly, similar to how subtitles zoom on and off the screen with a ridiculous sense of urgency. Perhaps worse is its egregious use of slow motion and brooding stares. There’s more macho posturing here than the bro-est of bro-dude movies, particularly in the half a dozen times Jason Statham and Vin Diesel gaze at each other with a strange, almost homoerotic hate.

The reason to see “Furious 7,” however, isn’t due to its highflying antics, explosions or car chases. No, it’s to see the beautiful tribute to Paul Walker at the end, who died before filming was completed. Not only does this tribute work within the context of the story up to this point, but it’s a fitting sendoff to a man who was said to be one of the kindest, gentlest people in Hollywood. The final shots are enough to make even the most jaded moviegoer shed a tear, as the fictitious film ends its run and the realization that someone very real lost his life far too soon.

In a way, though, it almost makes you appreciate the movie more. The franchise has gone on for so long that each successive film is actually becoming a generic copie of its forebears, but even with a far-too-long runtime of two hours and 20 minutes, “Furious 7” managed to end on the best five minutes it has ever produced. And no, there wasn’t a fight or an explosion or any gunfire whatsoever. It was a quiet moment, with a poignancy few other films, even the best dramatic ones, fail to achieve. I may not be the biggest fan of this franchise, but these final moments alone, as it remembers a friend it has sadly lost, makes “Furious 7” worth seeing.

Furious 7 receives 2.5/5

Friday
Mar132015

Cinderella

Nobody captures magic as well as Disney. For decades, they have delivered some of the most memorable and wonderful films time and again with rarely a stumble, at least when looking at their impressive animated filmography. No matter if you’re a child or an adult, it’s difficult not to gaze at the screen in imaginative awe and be transported to a world unlike anything you’ve ever seen. That’s why one’s hesitance towards taking a much loved animated film and turning it into live action is understandable, but they knock it out of the park with “Cinderella.” Based on the classic fairy tale, but borrowing heavily from the 1950 film, “Cinderella” is enchanting, a wonderful and stylish film with a charming lead and emotional narrative.

And that narrative should be well known by now. Ella (Lily James) is an orphan. She grew up in a warm household with a mother and father that loved her very much. Unfortunately, they are now both dead and she has found herself in the care of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett), an evil woman who treats her terribly, which includes forcing her to clean the fireplace, leading her stepsisters to give her a cruel nickname: Cinderella. Meanwhile, the Prince (Richard Madden) is throwing a ball and the entire kingdom is invited and even though her stepmother initially forbids her from attending, Cinderella is granted the opportunity by her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). So she jumps in her pumpkin carriage and slips on her glass slippers to meet the Prince.

And we know what happens from there. Certain things are changed from the well-known tale, like Cinderella and the Prince meeting prior to the ball, but the story plays out basically the same. So while there are little surprises in store, the film nevertheless remains mesmerizing. The story is brought to life with imaginative vigor, with a passion that similar animated-to-live-action films like “Beastly” severely lack. Unlike that film, this isn’t a pandering tween adaptation, but rather a loving tribute to one of the greatest and most hopeful stories of all time. Director Kenneth Branagh brings his usual stylistic flare, but downplays it when compared to something like the bombastic “Thor” and allows his actors and the inherent wonder of the story do the heavy lifting.

Even with that, this story hinges on a lead actress able to pull off the title role and create an empathetic character and they couldn’t have cast anyone better than Lily James. Before Cinderella’s mother died, she told her that there were two things she always needed to remember: to have courage and always be kind. They’re words to live by, but they also serve as a foundation for James to craft a character that is impossible not to fall in love with and root for. Not since 2007’s “Enchanted” have I felt such a strange connectedness to such an optimistic person, a perspective that remained unchanged in her even as she faced extreme adversity.

In fact, all of the performances are stellar, as each performer brings exactly what is needed to each respective role, except for, oddly enough, the typically great Cate Blanchett. While the costume design and occasional silliness of prior iterations of the story can be blamed for some of it—she’s naturally decked out in all dark, evil colors and accompanied by a cat whose name is, get this, Lucifer—her exaggerated mannerisms and dramatic tone do little to ground what is otherwise a captivating tale. If the aim was to make her unlikable, then she succeeded, but not because of her actions in the story, as it should be, but rather because her performance really is that annoying.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of wonder in this version of “Cinderella,” and it’s captured in an extravagance that doesn’t overtake the story, but enhances it. With a beautiful score that complements its already timeless story, “Cinderella” cements itself as a modern day classic, a film that boys and girls of all ages will adore.

Cinderella receives 4/5

Friday
Mar132015

Run All Night

Liam Neeson shooting people. If that sounds like a familiar premise for a film, it’s for good reason. Over the last seven years, ever since Neeson surprised everyone with his transition into action territory with “Taken,” it seems to be the only type of movie the once respected actor has made. A man who was once nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Schindler’s List” has since built a generic filmography that makes him more or less a walking joke. Seemingly every film, from “Taken” to last year’s “Non-Stop” follows the same at-this-point worn-down formula, with each film becoming more of a slog than the last. “Run All Night” could be the worst one yet, as it simply goes through the motions without doing much of anything particularly interesting.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a mobster who finds himself in a precarious situation with his boss after, through some of the most contrived circumstances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture, he ends up shooting his son. Once friends, that boss, played by Ed Harris, is now an enemy and plans on making him feel the same hurt by taking his own son, Mike, played by Joel Kinnaman, away from him. Naturally, Jimmy will do anything to prevent that from happening, which leads to one long night of shootouts and chases.

And I mean loooong night. Not since last year’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” has a movie been so unnecessarily long in relation to the complexity, or lack thereof, of its story. Thankfully, “Run All Night” isn’t quite as long as that movie, as it clocks in at roughly two hours, but it feels about the same. Characterization and emotion is minimal, though the film tries to create some of both with amateur screenplay tactics—Mike is estranged from Jimmy, meaning he has never met his own grandkids, all the while he’s freezing in his home because the poor guy can’t afford to fix his heater, etc.—so there’s very little grab onto here. In fact, it’s one of those rare films where I was actually rooting for the supposed “good guy” to lose.

You see, despite attempts to make Jimmy a likable character, his introduction shows him as the boorish pig he is, as he dresses up as Santa, gets drunk, treats the kids around him poorly and then proceeds to speak to an attractive woman in what can only be described as sexually abusive language. The introduction to this character is so bad that it leaves a lasting impression that later acts of goodwill fail to reverse, though even if it did, a late film reveal shows the true cowardice and selfishness of his personality.

Meanwhile, his boss, Shawn, shows empathy and even a tinge of regret. When he turns down a business deal with a local drug dealer trying to peddle heroine, he explains it’s because when he did something similar in his younger, more naïve days, it led to too much hardship, as those he loved became hooked on it and he lost them all. He’s still a bad guy, of course, and has most certainly done or ordered people to do worse things than Jimmy, but the film, perhaps unintentionally, paints him in a better light than the supposed hero.

Simply put, “Run All Night” has everything backwards and its tepid action does little to hide that fact. Its action is accompanied by few truly heart racing moments and lots of far-too-dark cinematography, occasionally aggressive close-ups and shaky cam and shot reverse shot shootouts. It feels very much like action filmmaking 101, like what an amateur filmmaker without the experience to truly know what he or she is doing would produce if given millions of dollars to toy with.

Run All Night receives 1/5

Thursday
Feb122015

Fifty Shades of Grey

It was mere hours before I left for my screening of the film adaptation of the popular novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” that I learned something interesting: the book actually began as fan fiction for the “Twilight” franchise. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Something so badly written, even when compared to its already rather insipid inspiration, surely couldn’t have come from a professional. As I recall sitting on the beach reading a handful of pages out loud to my father and brother-in-law, all three of us laughing maniacally at its overt and ridiculous sexuality while the true member of my family actually reading that nonsense walked the beach, it now seems obvious. Early reviews have stated that the story translates better to the screen than the page, but that’s like saying fiber foods translate to a better bowel movement than Taco Bell. At the end of the day, they’re both still crap.

And swimming in it is Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a young college student who has landed an interview with business mogul, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). As she walks through the halls of his company, women parading by in sexy outfits while she dons a more conservative dress, her insecurity shines through. The moment she steps through the door of Grey’s office, which must be no more than five minutes into the film, she becomes a gooey, blubbering mess, as she articulates her insecurity by pointing out how she couldn’t possibly fit in at his company with all the pretty women around. And this is where “Fifty Shades of Grey” starts to more aptly explore the fifty shades of a sexual predator.

As should be widely known at this point, Christian’s sexual desires are, let’s say, less traditional, which is fine, but it’s the way he manipulates Anastasia and feeds into her notion of what love and romance can be that should set off alarms for anyone with even a minor sense of morality. Anastasia is vulnerable and, as he spins the interview around to force her into her own admissions, he begins to sense it and starts planning his sexual attack, like a predator stalking its prey.

You see, Anastasia is a virgin and she longs for love. Outside of family and friends, she has never truly felt the embrace of someone who truly cares about her. It’s this lack of sexual and romantic experience that ultimately fuels Christian’s disgusting seduction. After explaining his desires to her—she must be a total submissive to his sexual dominance, which includes physical punishments should she disobey him—and finding out she’s a virgin, his response isn’t that she’s not ready for such a commitment. No, it’s more along the lines of, “Where have you been all this time?” He then proceeds to rectify the situation and makes passionate love to her.

This would be all well and good, except for the fact that his “rules”—he won’t take her to dinner, he won’t sleep in the same bed and, most importantly, she’s not allowed to touch him—expressly forbid such an action. In this moment, he uses her sexual inexperience and her desire to find love to lure her into his sexual deceit. After that fateful night, she thinks she’s in love and that he loves her back, that this is what romance is and can be and she finds it wonderful. So in the following days as he tries to convince her to become his “submissive,” she starts to let go of her hesitation, not because she’s truly interested in exploring her sexual limitations, but because he is using her emotion to make her think she is.

Plain and simple, Christian Grey, is a master manipulator. Like a frat boy who argues he got consent from the nearly blackout drunk girl at a party—which, of course, is not truly consent since the girl isn’t in the right frame of mind to give such a thing—Christian takes advantage of Anastasia, only on a more psychological level. Worse yet, when she says no to being his submissive and cuts the relationship off, he doesn’t accept it and shows up at her place anyway, creepily heading inside her apartment without her knowing, where he ties her down, gives her a bit of wine and has his way with her. Sure, the filmmakers try to make him less of a full-blown rapist (he does ask if she “wants this” prior to actually doing it, to which she replies with a barely audible confirmation), but they fail miserably. Christian is a walking sexual perversion, not because of the type of sex he enjoys, but because of the way he ultimately gets it, playing with Anastasia’s fragile mind until she begins to believe she wants something she doesn’t, not unlike an abused wife blaming herself for her husband’s indiscretions.

Playful though some may think this story is, it isn’t, and it shows the true horrors of such manipulation and abuse in a late scene where Christian gives Anastasia the worst punishment she can receive as a submissive. As she laid there, forced to count out the lashes she was receiving, tears streaming down her face, I could feel a piece of me withering away inside. The act is barbaric and demeaning and it’s extremely uncomfortable to watch, worse than the worst rape scene I’ve ever witnessed in a film, but without the meaningful context to back it up.

If you’ve read this far, it will come as no surprise that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is not subtle (“Now you can’t escape,” Christian says to Anastasia as he straps her into a helicopter, implying something a bit more disturbing beneath those surface words) and the dialogue is so insipid that it comes as a shock to the brain every time a character utters a word above three syllables. At one point, Christian threatens to bend Anastasia over his knee for rolling her eyes, a moment I missed as my eyes were themselves rolling so far in the back of my head that I nearly put myself into a catatonic state. Its visuals are similarly bad, particularly in the grey color scheme that makes you wonder if the filmmakers perhaps took the “fifty shades” part of the title a bit too literally.

But none of that matters when you have a movie that is so unaware of its own tone that it blindly tries to make abuse sexy. Even the best aspects of the film are overshadowed by it, particularly the good performance from Johnson, who does all she can with such a flat character. Of course, I’m no prude. If two grown adults can consent to a sexual lifestyle of BDSM, then more power to them, but make no mistake, the actions portrayed in “Fifty Shades of Grey” are not consensual, no matter what the filmmakers, like Mr. Grey himself, want you to believe.

Fifty Shades of Grey receives 0/5