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Entries in joss whedon (3)

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

Tuesday
May012012

The Avengers

It’s been building to this for years now, ever since Tony Stark first suited up to be Iron Man. Since then, we’ve had a sequel to that film, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, each working as a set up to this moment, when all of them are brought together to form The Avengers. Expectations are high and if early reviews are to be believed, they’ll be met, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in retrospect, opinions of it won’t be nearly as good. The Avengers is no different than any other superhero movie, except there are six of them, which turns out to be too much for one film. Eye candy notwithstanding, The Avengers is tonally inconsistent and character growth is all but missing, making it one of the most disappointing and shallow experiences of the year.

The main villain of the film is Thor’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Using an artifact called the Tesseract, he has opened a portal through space and has arrived at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his team of scientists are working. After causing a bit of destruction and forcing agent Clint Barton, better known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), to take his side, he sets off to start a war. Fearful of what could come, Fury forms a team of Earth’s greatest heroes to fend Loki off, which includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

The Avengers has a number of problems, but its biggest is that too much of the film’s enjoyment is supposed to come from the novelty of seeing all these heroes fight side by side against evil and even that proves to be too difficult a task to pull off. Although the finale is unquestionably fun to watch (particularly thanks to the Hulk), the film misses a clear opportunity to make this team a single unit. Aside from one instance where Iron Man bounces a projectile of Captain America’s shield, the powers of the heroes are never incorporated together. Instead, Iron Man is flying through the sky, the Hulk is jumping here and there off buildings, Thor is fighting his brother and Captain America is on the ground doing his own thing. They’re isolated so much it begins to feel more like little snippets of each hero’s movies have been cut together and less like the cohesive team experience we were promised.

When they are all together, they’re not fighting (unless it’s with each other), but these characters have been established differently in their own films and they don’t particularly mesh well. Iron Man, for instance, is the funny one, the one who always has a quip ready to spout out when confronted by someone else. In his own films, where the tone could be established as a singular trait, that’s totally fine, but when opposite the seriousness of Thor or Captain America, he doesn’t work, and vice versa. In one particular instance, Captain America is struggling with the idea that the he was frozen solid for 70+ years and everyone he knew, everyone he fought alongside with in the war, is now dead. He’s unfamiliar with the modern world and is finding his predicament difficult to handle. The movie then directly transitions to Stark in his playboy pad bouncing jokes off left and right. There’s an uncomfortable flow in The Avengers—it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serious, tense action film or a silly, self aware comic book movie—and it pervades the entire thing.

There’s also a distinct lack of character progression in The Avengers. While it could be argued that the other films addressed that issue by building them up to this point, it doesn’t excuse the thin writing here, which is surprising given how gifted writer/director Joss Whedon is with writing characters. They all end up pretty much where they were before (despite some poorly implemented middle ground where the characters struggle over the death of a character with whom they hardly had any interaction), which is precisely the problem. The story moves forward, so the characters must as well, but they don’t. Any minor progression is forced in arbitrarily and usually through quick lines of dialogue. Thor says at one point he used to court war, but now shuns it, as if that’s all you need for character growth.

Now, is The Avengers still worth seeing? Sure it is, but only for the most basic, visceral reasons. It’ll get your adrenaline pumping, but emotionally and narratively, there isn’t much going on. Never mind the useless, ugly and sometimes imperceptible 3D that dims the picture; when it gets to that final stretch of film, you’ll be won over, just as I was. Without it, the movie fails. That, of course, makes it a clear case of style over substance, which is what the public is calling for, so I guess in that regard it succeeds, but consider this. Both stylistically and narratively, The Avengers is most comparable to the recent Transformers films in that they both neglect the story and characters, hoping the slam bang finish will make the audience overlook its obvious deficiencies. That’s not a good thing. Once the excitement dies down and moviegoers have had repeat viewings, the veil will be lifted. The Avengers is nothing special.

The Avengers receives 2.5/5

Friday
Apr132012

The Cabin in the Woods

I’ll be completely honest. I have no idea how to review The Cabin in the Woods. After struggling to come up with an opening that puts into perspective what the film is about without giving any key plot points away, I decided to just be upfront. Frankly, discussing even the most basic aspect of the plot is a spoiler and this is a movie that is best to walk into blind. The trailers, surprisingly enough in a day and age where everything is ruined in a short 30 second TV spot, have done a good job of keeping things mysterious and it’s best to keep it that way. The easy thing to say is that I absolutely adored The Cabin in the Woods and I rank it among the top two or three films of the year so far, but elaboration of why seems impossible. The typical movie critic plot synopsis paragraph follows. Let’s see how it goes.

The film follows a group of teenagers as they venture into a cabin in the woods where strange things begin to happen.

Although obvious, that’s about as deep as a responsible writer should go in explaining the movie’s plot. To go further would completely ruin the experience. When watching the film and taking notes, I jotted down the off kilter opening and planned on explaining why the place, time and characters that were present in it were so odd for a horror movie, but doing even that would take away from its impact. What the film does so brilliantly is set up a horror story that we’ve seen a dozen times, complete with your typical “dead teenager” horror movie characters like the jock, the slut, the stoner and the virtuous heroine, and then goes in a completely different direction. The Cabin in the Woods spoofs the construction of horror films by, well, constructing a horror film. That description may be a bit cryptic, but it will all make sense after you see it.

Some critics have been comparing The Cabin in the Woods to the first couple Evil Dead films. First of all (and most obviously), they both take place at a remote cabin in the woods. Where they compare more thematically and creatively is in the places they go and the things the characters do. Such a comparison is not unwarranted and may even be welcome by writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, who throw in what must be a dozen Evil Dead references, including one that they affectionately refer to as the “angry molesting tree,” but The Cabin in the Woods goes much further than Evil Dead ever did. If anybody tells you they saw coming the way the events in this movie transpire, they’re lying through their teeth.

The references to horror don’t stop at Evil Dead, though. Horror buffs will spot a plethora of them throughout, especially near the unspoken ending, and they encompass video games as well, like a hilarious sight gag pertaining to Valve’s hit Xbox 360 game, Left 4 Dead. I hesitate to list more because half of the fun is spotting these references (and only video game nerds like myself will notice the nods to the games), but it’s a major component to the fun.

It must be said that The Cabin in the Woods isn’t particularly scary because it utilizes the same tricks many other horror films do, but that’s precisely the point and in the context of the story, it makes sense. Things we may scoff at in other films are fondly used here to celebrate the horror genre while also pointing out just how stupid it can be. You’ll more often feel like smiling than shielding your eyes because of its clever skewering of horror movie clichés.

No horror fan should walk out of The Cabin in the Woods unpleased. It’s a love letter to them and the genre they love. It wears its adoration for the genre on its sleeve while also bringing it back to its roots and away from the steady stream of so called “torture porn” films that have invaded the theaters in recent years. It’s destined to go down alongside films like the aforementioned Evil Dead and the original Scream as a horror movie classic. It’s just that good. It’s not safe to talk about right now, so as not to deny moviegoers the right to see it as intended, but after a few weeks, when interested parties have already sat down with it, The Cabin in the Woods will be all that is talked about. See it now before it’s ruined.

The Cabin in the Woods receives 4.5/5