Latest Reviews

Entries in Scarlett Johansson (7)

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
Apr032014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Has superhero fatigue set in? Six years have passed since the first “Iron Man” film, with each year seemingly more crammed with costumed heroes than the last, so one has to wonder how much longer this will last before the subgenre implodes on itself. If “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is any indication, it still has some legs, though it’s clear that we’re crossing into “been-there-done-that” territory at this point.

Although it had its detractors, I would argue that 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of the best in the recent Marvel canon, right up there with “Iron Man” because the film showcased the type of courageousness and nobleness one would expect from a hero. Captain America didn’t fight for any other reason than because it was the right thing to do and his big heart and selfless desires—to fight and even die for his country, if necessary—validated him. He was a character that was easy to root for and love. Thematically, the film didn’t have much going on, but as a character study, it worked, which forgave its thematic thinness. “The Winter Soldier” introduces more themes, many of which pertain to today’s world due, in part, to its modern setting, but neglects to follow through on them. That is the film’s biggest deficiency.

The story takes place in Washington, D.C. where the Captain, also known as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to his new life as a part of the Avengers working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency that deals primarily with superhuman threats. S.H.I.E.L.D., under the leadership of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is about to launch Operation Insight, which will place machine gun mounted helicarriers in the sky that are designed to protect the country’s citizens. The Captain doesn’t agree with this operation and, after a crazy turn of events, including a violent attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the possibility of a S.H.I.E.L.D. compromise, he is branded a fugitive. So while being hunted by the mysterious Winter Soldier, he finds himself on the lam with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), vowing to uncover whatever plan is about to unfold and put a stop to it.

And it’s with the introduction of those helicarriers that the film introduces its themes. The Captain disagrees with the very idea, arguing that launching the operation would only scare people into giving up their freedoms (“This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” he explicitly says at one point). To him, placing these eyes in the sky, always peering below for potential threats, compromises the freedom and right to privacy America’s citizens deserve. In a post-9/11 world where phone tapping and other surveillance measures are commonplace, these ideas couldn’t be more relevant.

The film even questions the notion that joining the military is the greatest thing you can do. While the Captain still considers the well-being of the country’s citizens his number one priority, he talks about how joining today, as opposed to during the World War II era he grew up and found his patriotism in, isn’t the same. The moral compass of “the greatest generation” is now gone and we instead “protect” our citizens with fear and intimidation. In a strange way, the film supports serving your country through activism rather than enlisting in a time of government corruption and unconstitutional actions.

As intriguing as these themes are, “The Winter Soldier,” unfortunately, drops them all too quickly. Actual insight is limited and most come through deep exposition rather than narrative exploration. Instead, the film rests on the laurels of being yet another Marvel movie. The flip side to this somewhat disappointing coin is that, luckily, the majority of those Marvel movies, while not all great, have been pretty solid. The action here, while certainly not as bombastic as “The Avengers,” is serviceable, if a little clunky. While some of the action is fluid and fun, other moments are too shaky and hectic. The camera likes to zoom in occasionally and follow each punch and kick to their fast paced conclusions and doing so sometimes makes the action a bit hard to follow.

One welcome addition in this installment is the greater focus on Black Widow. Not much more than a periphery character in the previous films, she has an expanded role here and she is allowed to come into her own. She’s a more complicated person than her previous appearances might suggest and she has to battle her own motivations between doing what she’s ordered to do and doing what’s right. The bond she forms with the Captain doesn’t really lead anywhere if looking for an emotional arc, but it works nonetheless.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will do exactly what filmgoers will expect of it and in that regard, it’s a success. Most won’t care about its thematic inconsistencies and had they not been included in the first place, one couldn’t fault it, but bringing them up and dropping them so quickly afterwards only to bring them up again in a cheesy late movie speech is a missed opportunity. This film had the potential to be one of the more intelligent, insightful movies in the Marvel canon, but ends up compromising its ideas for more of the same old Marvel action. It’s just a good thing that Marvel action is still as impressive as it is. But while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is easily recommendable right now, push this back a few years, when superhero fatigue has done more than show glimpses of itself, and it might not be.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives 3.5/5

Tuesday
Dec242013

Her

When it comes to full length directorial efforts, Spike Jonze can do no wrong. With only three previous films under his belt over a career that has spanned over two decades, it might be easy for one to assume that he doesn’t have “it,” that elusive spirit and wherewithal to really go for it and do something different. But then you think back to those three movies, the meta films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and the wonderfully imaginative, inventive and heartfelt “Where the Wild Things Are.” Like that 2009 marvel, his latest, the futuristic sci-fi romance, “Her,” is another film of unrivaled excellence, one that taps into ideas and themes in the way only the mind of Mr. Jonze can. It is hands down the best American movie of 2013.

“Her” follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), an increasingly lonely man whose wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), has left him. Still clinging onto a relationship that has clearly ended, he refuses to sign their divorce papers. One day, in a desperate attempt to alleviate his loneliness, he decides to purchase an operating system that he can install and speak to, whom he calls Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As the two speak, he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she’s nothing more than a computerized voice. She begins to reciprocate those feelings and finds in her a desire to be alive, which is obviously something she’ll never be able to obtain.

That’s a sad thought, to want something so bad, but know that it will never happen. But it’s a beautiful sadness, one that is contemplative and poignant, especially because being alive is all Theo wants too. “Her” understands that being alive isn’t simply in existing, but in the interactions with other people in our lives and the love that grows from those relationships. If we don’t have someone to care about or that cares for us, are we really alive?

In a broader sense, the movie explores this idea through Theo’s occupation as a letter writer, someone who manufactures sentiments for those who can’t take the time to do it themselves. In this future, it’s as if people can’t even feel for themselves and need others to feel for them and in our fast moving, technical world, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for something like this to happen. In a sense, it already has. For example, how often do people actually call their loved ones these days? Most send texts. Our conversations have not only devolved into online communication. They’re also being limited to 140 characters thanks to the likes of Twitter, one of the most popular social media sites around. “Her” imagines a world where human interaction has reached a near non-existent point, where even when it does happen, it’s mainly small talk. One early shot when Theo is riding the subway, everyone within the frame is talking, but not to each other. They’re all talking to their devices plugged into their ears. It’s a striking and haunting image.

But within all this thematic exploration is a human story about love and its messy existence. Even this so-called “perfect love,” the one that is programmed to say and be everything Theo could ever want and need, proves to be fleeting. What happens is something of profound sadness, though it nevertheless ends on a hopeful note, Theo having finally recaptured his humanity, even if it took a program to help him do it.

Rounding out a nearly flawless movie is the wonderful (occasionally diegetic) score. One of the most marvelous scenes in the film comes when Theo is standing on the beach talking to Sam through his earpiece. She asks him what it’s like to actually be there, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the sand beneath his toes, so he plays a piece of music for her in an attempt to capture it. Although great on its own serving as support for the events portrayed onscreen, scenes like this give the score so much more meaning to a movie already chock full of ideas and ruminations.

“Her” is the perfect follow-up to “Where the Wild Things Are,” another movie that expressed the kind of sadness and loneliness that a person can feel at a certain point in their life. Of course, that movie had its detractors, so I imagine this one will as well, but those people will be missing the entire point of it: to remind us that to love and to be loved is to be alive. Through the heartbreaks and the crippling sadness that love sometimes brings, it remains the sole reason to be alive in the first place. Sappy though it sounds, “Her” approaches it in a way that can only be described as divine. Nobody should miss this movie.

Her receives 5/5

Friday
Sep272013

Don Jon

There are certain actors that, as a general rule, don’t make bad movies. You can probably find an exception here and there, but for the most part, these actors choose daring roles in audacious movies that are in a capable director’s hands. They know exactly what they’re doing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors. From 2005’s underseen “Brick” to the emotional “50/50” to one of the most honest explorations of love ever put to screen in “(500) Days of Summer,” he has proven himself as one of today’s most versatile, and underrated, actors. His directorial debut, “Don Jon,” lacks the visual flair or steady pacing a more experienced director can obtain, but the quality is still there. From laughs to tears to some surprising and genuine meaning, “Don Jon” is a delight.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ladies man. He’s so successful with picking up women on a week to week basis that his friends actually call him “The Don.” He has no problem showing up at a club, meeting a girl, seducing her and taking her home for some late night fun. The problem is he considers sex secondary to his one true passion: porn. Put simply, he’s a junkie, someone who watches porn dozens of times a week, only to confess to his priest and be absolved of his sins. However, he soon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a knock-out he considers to be a perfect 10 in regards to looks. For the first time ever, he begins dating her, breaking his streak of hooking up with a new girl every week, but his love of porn and her strong hatred of it is going to strain their relationship.

“Don Jon” is a strange breed. It has central characters that aren’t good people, or even interesting ones. Aside from the title character, most are throwaway, including Jon’s two friends and his sister who stares into her phone the entire movie until speaking some words of wisdom near the end, and many of them do and say things that make you wonder why we should care at all about them. Even Jon has anger issues, particularly while driving, which is shown through random segues from scene to scene. While one scene culminates into him punching through the side window of a motorist’s car, the compilation of these scenes culminate to nothing. There’s no reason for this other than to create ill will towards a character we’re supposed to enjoy watching.

Yet the movie has a soul, even while some of the characters arguably don’t. Although most Hollywood movies portray sex and sexuality in ways that glamorize it to unrealistic heights, “Don Jon” looks at sex from a more spiritual view, despite the pornography focused central story. Jon is obsessed with porn and considers it the pinnacle of sexuality, something that can’t be topped by someone with whom he’s physically engaging. When Barbara comes along, he says he’s in love, but as he expresses his love to her, he says she’s “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever laid his eyes on. His love is purely for her aesthetic qualities and what she could potentially offer him in bed. He fails to realize the shallow and selfish person underneath those looks.

When they finally hop in the sack, she, unsurprisingly, fails to match the feelings watching pornography gives him. This is because he’s not truly forming a connection. Yet as the film goes on, he grows. From sources I won’t spoil here, Jon learns the true value of sex. He learns that sex can be something more than getting off, but rather something special between two people. It’s an interesting turn of events and a great exploration of what sex can offer aside from the obvious pleasures, even if the previous focus on porn addiction is simpleminded at best.

“Don Jon” isn’t a long film—a mere 90 minutes, including opening and closing credits—which may be why its themes don’t resonate as much as they should, but in a cinematic world that seems to value sex over love, we shouldn’t shun a movie that sees deeper meaning in the former, even while it mostly ignores the latter.

Don Jon 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