Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Avengers 2

In the summer of 2008, Marvel began a journey with “Iron Man” that culminated in 2012’s first team-up with the star-studded Avengers. Since then we’ve added more solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the mostly irrelevant (but downright entertaining) “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Now that we’ve come back around to another outing with the Avengers, the question is: Can the sequel live up to its predecessor’s expectations? The short answer is “no,” but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Age of Ultron” picks up with the full team rushing to defeat Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a leader of Hydra, who possesses Loki’s scepter from the previous film. Though the villain is foiled rather easily, his work lives on in superhuman twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers that the scepter holds the key to artificial intelligence, he decides to create Ultron (James Spader), an AI system that can theoretically police the world through an army of robots. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie ever you probably know where this is headed.

In the first Avengers film Joss Whedon spent a large portion of its running time bringing the team together as a unit. Like an NBA franchise that brings in several megastars on one team, there has to be time for ego to give way to camaraderie. With that issue mostly settled, the new film gives the audience a look at a more mature squad of heroes. More choreographed team maneuvers cannot hide, however, the divisions that will be coming soon in Captain America 3 when civil war strikes.

There is no mistaking that “Age of Ultron” tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor as well as a recent DC film. The former is that the film spends a lot of time developing and shining a spotlight on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Under mind control for most of the first film, here the archer gets to make more quips and interacts frequently with Pietro aka Quicksilver. As for that DC film, one of the main gripes Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” received was that it didn’t firmly establish Superman’s concern for civilians and their safety. Fast forward to “Age of Ultron” and we are spending half of the finale watching Avengers put people on lifeboats to avoid Ultron’s deadly plan. It doesn’t detract from the action enough to be a major complaint, but no one really bought a ticket to watch the Red Cross go to work either.

While the film delivers more than enough explosions and laughs to warrant the ticket price, the sequel does have a “been there, done that” feel to it. Perhaps I’m the only one, but 11 Marvel films is a lot. Part of the reason why “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were able to breathe life into the Marvel universe is because they felt different and each had its own personality. “Age of Ultron”, on the other hand, feels more like a generic superhero movie. Very fun and entertaining, but generic nonetheless.

Originally the film was set to be roughly a half hour longer, but Whedon and Co. were forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. This leaves the film with a bit of an uneven pace as well as a few small questions in the plot. It also makes Thor a substantially less interesting character by reportedly cutting out most of his subplot setting up 2017’s Thor 3.

But enough with the negative, let’s talk some positives.

  • Though I think the character could have been handled better, James Spader was perfect casting for Ultron. Voice acting isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be and he nailed it.
  • “Age of Ultron” was finally able to make the team feel like something more than Tony Stark and friends. For good reason, Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise until now, but here he is a member of a team rather than the most important guy in the room.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is an imperfect, but entertaining action film that sometimes suffers from being too generic and following a long line of other Marvel films.

Grade: B

Since the internet is all about lists these days, I would probably rank “Age of Ultron” 4th out of all of the Marvel films to date, just between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Iron Man”. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Sabotage”

Sabotage

Arnold Schwarzenegger sure isn’t getting any younger.

At 66 years old, the action star keeps the hits coming with “Sabotage”, another ensemble film like “The Expendables” but with much younger co-stars.

“Sabotage” is a crime thriller about a DEA task force that faces unintended consequences after stealing $10 million from a drug cartel. The film features a long list of recognizable faces from Terrence Howard to Josh Holloway and even Sam Worthington, finally returning to an action film set in our universe.

John “Breacher” Wharton (Schwarzenegger) is the leader of an elite team of DEA hitters who steal $10 million in drug money after a big bust. As you can imagine, this leads to the team making enemies in the DEA, the cartel and even within their own ranks.

In case “Breacher” isn’t a manly enough nickname for you, there’s also “Sugar” (Howard), “Neck” (Holloway), “Monster” (Worthington) and “Grinder” (Joe Manganiello). Feel free to borrow any of those next time you’re at Laser Quest. Sadly missing a cool name is Lizzy (Mireille Enos of AMC’s “The Killing”) who is the lone female on the team and, by far, its craziest member.

Though the trailer makes the team across as a family, its really just a roomful of crazy characters who are insanely hard to care about. Hardly five minutes goes by where the majority of them aren’t drunk or high and at each other’s throats. The only members of the team who feel remotely human are Breacher and Monster but even considering them, the only likeable people in the film are the pair of investigators (Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau) looking into the deaths of these DEA agents.

Along with mostly unlikeable characters, the script is a complete mess. Is this a revenge film, a film about corruption in the War on Drugs, both? The themes and character motivations are all over the place and, after watching the finale, you wonder if the filmmakers even knew what kind of film they wanted to make. Since director David Ayer has had a pretty good track record so far (“Training Day”, “End of Watch”, etc.), it’s probably safe to say that the majority of the film’s problems fall on Skip Woods’ head. Seriously, check out the guy’s IMDB page where you’ll find award-winning screenplays for “Swordfish” and “The A-Team”. To be fair, though, Ayer has had a couple of turkeys as well.

For whatever reason, “Sabotage” is a complete mess when it comes to its storyline and, more unforgivably for this kind of film, is utterly boring during the second act. Considering this is where most of the story takes place, that’s not a great thing.

There are two main reasons why one could enjoy “Sabotage”: the action sequences are pretty cool and Arnold Schwarzenegger gives one of his best performances in years. The latter actually makes the film a little worse because you can imagine the potential for the story.

“Sabotage” isn’t a horrible film, but the cast deserved a better script and the director is capable of delivering a much better product. All in all, a disappointment.

Grade: C-

Happy viewing. (Especially if you’re excited about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”!)

Just Checking In…

Hey guys, I know this month has been a little light on reviews but I’ll be picking it back up here in the next few days. I’m sorry I couldn’t impart my wisdom on such cinematic classics as “Legend of Hercules” and “I, Frankenstein” but with January almost over, the darkest movie days of the year are nearly behind us.

In the meantime, check out my little YouTube project “Movies That You Should Be Able to Say That You’ve Seen” where we review some of the biggest films of the past. Right now we are doing Man Law Movies and we’ve covered “Die Hard” and “Tombstone” so far. Feel free to drop a request or give us some feedback on the show. Happy viewing.

Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Star Trek Into Darkness

Set Phasers to Lens Flare

Once again, JJ Abrams takes us into his interpretation of Star Trek, where the inside of a spaceship is brighter than the stars it is passing by. Sorry, I’m trying to get all references to lens flare out of my system so we can all move on.

There. Much better.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” opens with the Enterprise crew visiting a primitive planet to stop a volcano from killing the locals. In the process, they fail their prime directive and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is once again reprimanded for ignoring regulations. Around the same time, a bombing by one of their own rocks Starfleet and leads to the deaths of many of their senior officers. Kirk is then reinstated to lead a vengeful mission to find the man responsible (Benedict Cumberbatch).

If you don’t want to know who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing (hint: It’s not John Harrison, the name he is originally given in the film), then I suggest you stop reading now and come back later. It hasn’t been the best kept secret, but I’d rather have a pointless disclaimer than ruin the film for someone.

The great thing about “Into Darkness” is that we finally get to see Kirk not being the douchiest character known to man. Sure, he got to be more likable by the end of the 2009 film, but he still didn’t seem like much of a leader. Here we get to see Pine playing the character a little more maturely and Kirk even starts to form a serious friendship with Spock (Zachary Quinto). Other characters who finally get to breathe a little are Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and, to a lesser extent, Scotty (Simon Pegg).

Although many of the original Trekkies don’t care for how much this new series resembles Star Wars with its big space battles, these scenes are pretty well done here (especially a scene where one ship overtakes another mid-warp). That being said, I do hope in the future these films find a way to make a story happen on a planet not called Earth. There’s minimal trekking going on and it seems a more accurate title for the series would be “Starfleet”.

Hopefully all of our Cumberbatch spoiler people are gone because I want to talk about his portrayal of the legendary Star Trek villain Khan. Once made popular by Ricardo Montalban, Cumberbatch doesn’t look a thing like the original villain. Nor does he really act like him, aside from being wrathful and overall not a person I would want to upset. However, the actor’s interpretation of the character is very fun to watch. Without chewing up the scenery, Cumberbatch delivers a deliciously evil bad guy that makes Eric Bana’s Nero seem like a cat stuck in a tree. There are two complaints I have about Khan, neither of which are the fault of the actor. 1) If JJ Abrams wants to pull off the “Can we trust him or not?” idea halfway through the film (you’ll know it when you see it), it would have been better to not make Khan look like the devil himself leading up to this point. 2) Why is the character not in the film more? Khan has maybe 4 or 5 scenes where he’s talking a substantial amount of time and the rest of the film he is given relatively no dialogue. To use an analogy from the Nolan Batman films, Khan is the Joker, but he gets as much screentime as Scarecrow.

The biggest problem with “Star Trek Into Darkness” is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a new Star Trek film or just a remake of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. If the whole point of an alternate universe in the 2009 film was to destroy expectations and make your own films, why would you copy several scenes and lines of dialogue from 1982? Despite this confusion, “Into Darkness” does provide many of its own ideas and pulls off a very exciting sci-fi film.

This is a promising sequel for the Star Trek franchise, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next few years, as JJ Abrams will now take over the Star Wars sequels.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

Review – Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol

After a short pre-release on IMAX screens, “Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the fourth installment of the Tom Cruise spy franchise, came to theaters on Wednesday boasting the near perfect Rotten Tomato score of 95%.

Other than Cruise, Simon Pegg’s recurring character Benji and a small cameo by Ving Rhames, the film introduces a variety of new characters. Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Josh Holloway and a villainous Michael Nyqvist add flavor to the entertaining franchise that never delivers two similar films.

This time out, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are forced into guerilla spy-fare when they are blamed for the destruction of the Kremlin during a mission to acquire Russian nuclear launch codes. As a result, the IMF is disavowed and they are stripped of all support and clearence by the U.S. government.

Despite these major setbacks, a terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) bent on starting a global nuclear event must be stopped and Ethan’s team is the only force with a lead to follow.

As mentioned above, the “Mission:Impossible” franchise aims for a different vision with each film produced. This is mainly due to each film having its own director. Brian De Palma, John Woo and JJ Abrams have handled the past three installments and each brought their own vision of the TV show-inspired series.

Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) makes his live-action directorial debut and, considering the vastness and technical intricacies of the film, knocks it out of the park. While he shouldn’t be expecting Oscar recognition any time soon, Bird has crafted a very smart, engaging film.

The plot for “Ghost Protocol” is more reactionary and situational than the average spy film. Missions from previous films have often seen the heroes racing against the clock to stop a disaster, but the added pressure of limited supplies and other special circumstances really put Hunt’s team against the wall. These on-screen setbacks are great for building suspense and improve the film over many spy thrillers.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the film is full of impressive locations and big time stunts. The franchise is known for scenes showing Cruise jumping between rock ledges (M:I2), rapelling into impenetrable rooms (M:I and M:I3) and leaping from an exploding helicopter onto a bullet train (M:I).

This time, the thrills are delivered through Cruise running from a sandstorm and a bomb detonation, scaling a skyscraper in Dubai and other activities a civilian wouldn’t dream of doing.

On the franchise’s action scale (M:I2 being the most action heavy and the original having the least action), “Ghost Protocol” is closest to the 1996 original. The film is nowhere near boring, but audiences don’t have to put up with too many over-the-top antics.

While the film is mainly concerned with Cruise and Co., one aspect of the film that felt lacking was the villain. Nyqvist, who is probably most well-known for playing journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, is rarely seen on screen and never really gets a chance to shine. At least, not like Dougray Scott and Philip Seymour Hoffman were able to in the past two “Mission:Impossible” outings.

That being said, the film is about the heroes racing against the clock. Much like a wise saying, it is the journey that matters, not the destination (or main bad guy).

“Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a fast-paced spy thriller lacking the usual throwaway characters and unnecessary stupidity that drag the action genre down (save for a President Bush joke near the end that misses).

Grade: A-

Good afternoon and happy viewing.