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Entries in Mark Ruffalo (4)

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
Jul162010

The Kids Are All Right

Movies are an expressive art form and many filmmakers use them as a means to get their messages across. When walking into a movie about a controversial or taboo topic, it’s only natural to assume it will take a position. However, some filmmakers break the mold and like to explore issues within the issues. Last year’s brilliant war film The Hurt Locker never criticized nor praised the Iraq war and instead showed the indisputable effects it has on select soldiers fighting in it. The Kids Are All Right does something similar. It’s about a married lesbian couple with two children, but doesn’t seem to make a statement on homosexuality. It’s simply a story about an imperfect family, like all families, that go through trials and tribulations and must stick together to overcome them.

The film’s story is simple. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been married for quite some time. Unable to have children on their own, they go to a sperm bank and artificially inseminate themselves. Both have a baby, producing Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Now they are all grown up and Joni is about to head off to college. Before doing so, she contacts her and her brother’s sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Despite Laser’s initial unwillingness to open up, the three bond. When Jules and Nic find out, they take it upon themselves to meet Paul, but conflicting emotions threaten to tear the once stable family apart.

The beauty of The Kids Are All Right is that it treats its characters with respect. It never looks at Jules and Nic as a gay couple. It simply sees them as a couple. They have normal conversations about their jobs. They have problems. They worry about their children and want to share their lives with them. They’re just like any married couple. The filmmakers ensure that their relationship is authentic through and through.

Even better is that their mannerisms make sense. When Paul comes into the picture, Nic understands why her kids sought him out, but questions why they felt the need to. Isn’t her love enough? So she becomes upset, especially after meeting him. Paul is unkempt, rugged and says what’s on his mind, though he means well. Still, Nic doesn’t like him. She was content with her family before, but now fears for its survival with him around. Some may argue her behavior is irrational, which is perfectly justifiable, but it’s believable and that’s why the film works.

You can understand her point of view, even if she is coming off as a little hot-headed. All of the characters are handled this way, even the uncouth Paul. Because of this, you can relate to each and every person and don’t want to see any of them get hurt, but due to a plot turn (that I’ve purposely skipped to avoid spoilers), that outcome is impossible.

Quite simply, the filmmakers do an excellent job of fleshing out their characters. You will relate to somebody in this movie, guaranteed. Even more remarkable are the performances, all of which are spot-on. Although never directly stated, you can tell which child came from which mother because they have similar personalities. Nic’s abrasiveness trickled into Laser while Jules’ easy-going nature clearly penetrated Joni, though both have physical quirks that attach them to their biological father. It’s really quite astounding.

So yes, this is a serious film, but not always. At times, it can be rather funny. I laughed quite a bit, especially from some early sexual double entendres, which goes to show how much thought and care went into the film's production. The Kids Are All Right is in limited release and most likely won’t get the audience it deserves, which is a shame. It may be about a gay couple with sperm donor kids, but I'd be willing to bet you'll see a little bit of your family in here too.

The Kids Are All Right receives 4/5

Friday
Feb192010

Shutter Island

At the movies, actors are considered the most important to the viewing public because, hey, that's who they're seeing onscreen. Although they do offer considerable depth, films are made by dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. Most do their job off camera and receive little respect for it, even directors in most cases, but not Martin Scorsese. Perhaps the most notable of all living directors, Scorsese has crafted a body work unparalleled in the film world. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas to The Departed, the man has routinely delivered solid work with films that are largely considered to be some of the greatest of all time. His genius still holds true with his latest effort, Shutter Island, based on the book by Dennis Lehane, a brilliant, haunting tale of morality and mentality that explores the difficulty of living through painful memories and what it means to accept them.

Leonardo DiCaprio is captivating as Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal on his way to Shutter Island, a land mass in Massachusetts where a mental institution rests. Along with his partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, he has been hired to find a missing patient who escaped the previous night. The head psychiatrist of the penitentiary is Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, who explains to them that there's no logical explanation for her escape. Her cell door was locked from the outside and the only window is covered with bars. As he puts it, "It's as if she evaporated straight through the walls." After Teddy searches her room, he finds a note that simply says, "The law of 4" and "Who is 67?" As he finds clues, he discovers that not all is as it seems on the island.

However, things don't seem right within Teddy either. He is haunted by his troubled past and the atrocities he experienced in WWII a mere 10 years ago, he is having more and more vivid hallucinations of his dead wife, played by Michelle Williams, who burned up in a fire by a man supposedly held at this very institution and he is becoming increasingly weaker as time goes on. He has even been taking pills provided by the institution workers. Is he being drugged? Are they trying to keep Teddy there? If so, for what purpose? He sets out to find the answers, but must act quickly if he ever hopes to get off the island.

Appropriately, Shutter Island is like a book that you want to flip to the last page so you can see how it ends. The questions it raises linger and never go away, begging you to find the answers and I wanted nothing more than to skip to the end if only so I could finally find out what was happening. However, if I'm being honest, the ending isn't something that we've never seen. In fact, it's pretty common of any film that takes place in an insane asylum to naturally go this route, so yes, you'll probably figure out as you watch that only one of two endings are even possible and you'll be able to narrow it down to one with your knowledge of how movies generally work, but you'll nevertheless be shocked by its intricacies. It's not a simple case of that's that. It's more like a brain teaser, working in a way that even after you know the answer you have to think back and place the pieces in the correct slot.

Much of the astonishment from the ending comes from the terrific acting leading to it, though it would be impossible to delve into why some performances worked so well without giving away vital points of the story. While Ruffalo and Kingsley were great, as was Jackie Earle Haley in a particularly inspired cameo, DiCaprio steals the show. He plays a multi-layered individual dealing with heartache, fear, confusion and a sickness begun from the opening scene where he and his partner drift up to the island on a ferry that increases as time goes on. He mesmerizes in another award worthy performance, especially during the more emotional scenes. Nobody can cry like DiCaprio.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about a Scorsese picture without talking about the man's direction. As should be an obvious remark by now, Scorsese directs this picture with a style unseen in Hollywood. If you ask me, he actually tones it down a bit with Shutter Island, never forcing camera movements when it isn't prudent, but rather keeping a steady eye on what's going on, allowing his actors to do their jobs. His stylistic touch was fantastic from the simplest of shots to the recurring motif of flickering lights that can be analyzed in so many different ways you could write a term paper on it.

This is a tall claim to be throwing out when you're discussing a body of work as impressive as Scorsese's, but I believe Shutter Island may be one of his best. It's meaningful, enlightening, beautiful and intense all at the same time. It's one of those films that you walk out of and feel like watching again immediately. It's a testament to the skill of the talent involved and it shows that ingenuity still exists in an increasing Hollywood world of sequels and remakes.

There's one line of dialogue, the last one in the entire movie in fact, that set my brain racing. It's a line that has stuck with me ever since I've seen it and sparked discussion with those around me. It's a summation of the whole film and really gets to the core of life and the disparity between what can really be considered sane and insane, so I'll leave you with it to ponder over.

"Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?"

Shutter Island receives 5/5