Avengers Age of Ultron

Well I’ve been lucky enough to see Avengers: Age of Ultron twice now (3D in the double feature and a 2D 9:15 am showing with my wonderful wife) so I suppose I should write about it.

Avengers Age of Ultron

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Rated PG-13

When Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron, things go horribly wrong and it’s up to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.”

Avengers: Age of Ultron is magnificent. I’ve seen it twice in the theaters and am likely to watch it again. I also look forward to buying it on Blu-Ray. I will say that 3D did not add anything to the movie for me so I’d recommend against the extra charge. I saw a preview for Jurassic World in 3D and that looks like the 3D may be worthwhile.

That said, Age of Ultron is way too much. The CGI is seriously overwhelming. Whedon wanted a lot of the action to be freeflowing but I prefer setpieces properly designed where you can always tell what is happening (think Raiders of the Lost Ark). The CGI setpieces do showcase all of the team’s abilities and appearances but there is a serious case of information overload and in 3D, it is so much worse.

As a comic book fan, I love getting to see all the characters I grew up with appear on the big screen. Unfortunately the screenplay packs in so many, there is no room to breathe. We get The Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, and Black Widow all returning from Avengers. We also get Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Ultron, Baron Strucker, and Vision new to the movie series. Also appearing are War Machine from Iron Man, Heimdall and Erik Selvig from Thor, Nick Fury and Maria Hill from S.H.I.E.L.D., and Peggy Carter and The Falcon from Captain America.

Since Vibranium figures prominently in the plot, Ulysses Klaue is introduced, played by Andy Serkis in a rare non-CGI appearance. I expect this is supposed to set up the future Black Panther movie. There was even a scene with Loki that got cut and of course a character not mentioned in the end credits scene.

Another nitpick, and it is a nitpick, is that the dream sequences seem poorly handled, especially the ones involving Thor. Several things are given hasty or even no explanation. One would think that that wouldn’t happen in a two hour and twenty minute movie but Whedon just stuffs and stuffs and stuffs until the movie is bursting.

Now back to the original verdict. Age of Ultron is marvelous. All the characters are given good character beats. Hawkeye who had the worst storyline in Avengers gets the best one here. We had a great Hulk vs. Thor battle last time so here we get a great Hulk vs. Iron Man (in Hulkbuster armor!) battle.

The battles are frantic and packed with state of the art CGI. They are a lot of fun if a little hard to follow. The humor in the script is great, including a nice running gag at Captain America’s expense. This is definitely a Joss Whedon film and I look forward to what he does next (sadly he’s done with this series).

If you like Marvel’s cinematic universe, you’ll like this film. Go see it and you only need to stay for the first post-credit sequence. There isn’t a second one as in the first movie. Joss felt that he could not top the shawarma scene.

Snowpiercer and the Korean Invasion

I recently had the opportunity to catch a few movies in the theater. Snowpiercer is currently in theaters.

Snowpiercer

 

Snowpiercer (2013) – Rated R

Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.”

I have really enjoyed a lot of Korean cinema over the last decade. My favorites have been “The Host”, “The Good, The Bad, The Weird”, “I Saw the Devil”, and “Mother”.

I Saw the Devil” and “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” were directed by Kim Jee-woon. The former is a wonderfully dark and twisted tale of revenge and a serial killer. The latter is an epic Eastern Western. Both are currently available on instant Netflix. Obviously the success of these films caught the attention of Hollywood.

As with many successful Asian directors, Kim Jee-woon was brought over to direct a Hollywood picture – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback, The Last Stand. While there are some nice visual flourishes, The Last Stand is not very good and not just because of Johnny Knoxville.

The Host” (2006) and “Mother” were directed by Joon-ho Bong. The former is a wonderful horror tale about a pollution monster with some oddball humor. The latter is a dark movie about a mother’s efforts to clear her son of murder charges. The Host is currently available on instant Netflix.

Joon-ho Bong chose the more independent route of making an international picture, neither Korean nor American. Snowpiercer is an English-language film starring Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton. It also features some Korean sequences with Kang-ho Song, star of “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” and Ah-sung Ko, star of “The Host”.

The ever fickle Weinstein Company chose a new strategy for this release. Two weeks after the theatrical premiere, Snowpiercer was made available on Video on Demand. Since it takes about two weeks for independent films to trickle down to Asheville, this meant an almost simultaneous release here. While it may mean less revenue for them theatrically, Weinstein gets a much larger share of the profits from the VOD end.

I applaud whatever arrangements allow Joon-ho Bong and other directors to realize their visions without the obvious compromises caused by the Hollywood corporatization. Here I feel it results in the difference between The Last Stand and Snowpiercer, just as decades ago it resulted in the difference between John Woo’s The Killers and Hard-Boiled and his Hollywood movies like Windtalkers and the aptly named Paycheck.

Snowpiercer is a fantastic science fiction masterpiece. Every scene is wonderfully crafted. Each car on the train serves a different societal purpose. Special effects are omnipresent yet are understated and serve the story rather than detracting from it.

The movie has a lot of interesting things to say about the (inevitable) class system that develops but never becomes pedantic. It also has quite a number of interesting revelations along the way. I really enjoyed the power of self-delusion shown in several of the characters.

Acting is wonderful from the ensemble cast. They make Chris Evans quite scruffy and tone down his charisma so fits right in. Jaime Bell makes an earnest second-in-command for the revolution. John Hurt is a charmer and a scene stealer as is Tilda Swinton though she is perhaps a bit over the top. The aforementioned Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko are great as well despite speaking in Korean without subtitles (for the most part).

Snowpiercer is the second best film I have seen this year, behind only The Grand Budapest Hotel. Catch it in theaters if you can. If not, it is available through Amazon and other VOD services.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The same day I took off from work to see the dreadful Sabotage, I was able to catch a Captain America double feature. It really helped wash the taste of Sabotage out.

Captain America Winter Soldier

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Rated PG-13

Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

Wow. I was beginning to be disheartened. I enjoy all the Marvel movies but after The Avengers, Iron Man 3 was exciting but a bit of a letdown. Besides all the tomfoolery with one of my favorite villains, they seem to have written the script based on focus groups and added a cute kid sidekick.

Thor 2 was even more of a letdown. A movie about Norse gods should have just a bit less lasers and space ships. I like Christopher Eccleston but he didn’t make much of an impression as a villain. Even the humor was less.

They took Natalie Portman’s scientist Jane Foster and turned her into a pathetic god-stalker, someone who is only defined by her relationship to Thor. She was a strong character in the first movie and in the second, she just becomes a catalyst. Ah well enough whining – I honestly enjoy all of the Marvel films even if I nitpick them.

One Line Review: Superb storytelling allows all characters room to breathe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with a wonderful script. While the focus is obviously Captain America, the Black Widow, the Falcon, and Nick Fury receive ample time and a good fleshing out. Agents Jasper Sitwell and Maria Hill return from earlier movies. Robert Redford makes a rare appearance as Alexander Pierce, Nick Fury’s boss.

The scriptwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely threw in a lot of callbacks and natural consequences. We find out what happened to Arnim Zola after the first movie and re-encounter the shadowy figures in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. from The Avengers. Fans of the comic book will have a hard time spotting all of the references and in-jokes but there are some obvious ones clearly planned for the future such as Brock Rumlow and Agent 13.

The direction by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There is a lot of nice humor and banter in the early going before paranoia sets in. I did enjoy how much smarter Black Widow seemed than Captain America.

The action scenes are fine but there aren’t any real showstoppers. This actually works as the directors keep the film grounded and focused on the paranoia. We do get to see plenty of Cap, The Falcon, Nick Fury, and Black Widow kicking butt but it seems more martial arts oriented than superhero focused.

Oh and stay through the credits for two extra scenes as seems to be the new Marvel norm (Thor The Dark World and The Avengers each had two extra scenes). The first is a very nice teaser but the second seemed an unnecessary coda.

Captain America

Captain America just became available on instant Netflix.

One-Line Review: An earnest family-friendly superhero adventure that is a little long and a little slow but quite enjoyable.

Captain America (2011) – Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

“It is 1942, America has entered World War II, and sickly but determined Steve Rogers is frustrated at being rejected yet again for military service. Everything changes when Dr. Erskine recruits him for the secret Project Rebirth. Proving his extraordinary courage, wits and conscience, Rogers undergoes the experiment and his weak body is suddenly enhanced into the maximum human potential. When Dr. Erskine is then immediately assassinated by an agent of Nazi Germany’s head of its secret HYDRA research department, Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull, Rogers is left as a unique man who is initially misused as a propaganda mascot. However, when his comrades need him, Rogers goes on a successful adventure that truly makes him Captain America and his war against Schmidt begins. “

I find Joe Johnston to be a very problematic director. His Jurassic Park III was a quick fun romp but it had very little of the majesty that infused the two Spielberg outings. Johnston’s The Wolfman had some very good scenes and actors but was ultimately a mess. On the other hand, way back in 1991, he directed the adorable pre-WWII saga, The Rocketeer and did a very good job of bringing the Dave Stevens graphic novel to the screen.

The Rocketeer would seem to make Johnston the ideal choice for Captain America as the stories are not all that different. A naive but earnest young man discovers a rocket pack/secret formula that allows him to fight Nazis as a masked superhero.

Chris Evans is great as Steve Rogers/ Captain America. I love the visual wizardry used to portray him as the proverbial 98-lb. weakling prior to his transformation. In the after shots, you will be wondering if those abs are real. Evans does a fine job of being earnest and brave and a little naive.

One of the biggest problems I had with Captain America was actually one of the things I had most been looking forward to. Hugo Weaving is a fantastic orator and his creations of Elrond (from the LOTR trilogy) and Mr. Smith (from The Matrix trilogy) are indelibly etched in my mind as is his voice in V for Vendetta. Unfortunately Hugo Weaving appears to have studied his German accent so hard here that his dramatic cadences are lost. His version of The Red Skull is good but just doesn’t quite gel.

Hydra is the villain organization and they have an army of Nazis with laser rifles. This also doesn’t gel well and comes across as silly in some of the scenes. Thankfully, Toby Jones is great as The Red Skull’s underling, Arnim Zola.

Stanley Tucci is excellent as always as the erstwhile Dr. Erskine but has very little screen time. Tommy Lee Jones is his usual fun craggy self as Colonel Chester Phillips. Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan are okay as Rogers’ best gal and pal respectively.

Pacing is a little uneven. I appreciate the logic behind using Captain America to sell war bonds but it sidelines him for too much of the movie and the battle montages will either make you shrug your shoulders or wish that they had included the actual battle. Corporate pressure from Marvel may have had an effect here as Captain America had to be ready and in the present for The Avengers this year – thus limiting his time in World War II.

Joe Johnston does a great job of conveying the feel of the time and characters (without the terrible Hollywood shorthand of sepia-toning everything). There is very little cursing and everyone is so earnest and not snarky.

Marvel fans will have plenty to umm marvel at. We get a look at Tony Stark’s father Howard (Dominic Cooper) in action as well as Dum-Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and the requisite appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). There is a great visual joke with Arnim Zola and the plot revolves around the cosmic cube/ tesseract. Don’t forget to stay for the post-credits sequence.

Future Watch: Although Joe Johnston will not be back for it, look for Captain America: Winter Soldier in theaters April 4th, 2014 (Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan and Samuel L. Jackson will be reprising their roles). Joe Johnston is rumored to be working on Jurassic Park IV. Hugo Weaving will once again be seen as Elrond in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this Christmas.

Captain America & Marvel Superhero week

You might guess from the Captain America shirt that I was looking forward to the Captain America movie and you would be right. I went to see it with my honey today and I really enjoyed it (although both Thor and X-Men First Class were better).  It was a real throwback to the idealistic Captain America of my youth – not the grittier yet superb vision of Ed Brubaker. Strangely not many people stayed until the credits were over to see the “sneak peek” of The Avengers. I always love the bonus scenes for staying through the credits.

We also saw a preview for The Amazing Spider-Man but to me it really seemed like Green Lantern 2012. It looks like a retread of the Spider-Man origin story by a lesser director and with a less appealing cast. I love the plethora of comic book movies each year but I do recognize they have a wide range of quality associated with them. In fact I often feel relieved after I have seen a bad one (Green Lantern, either Fantastic Four movie) as I feel I have “disaster-proofed” the others for the year.

By the way if anyone has not seen Captain America yet, I got FREE tickets for my wife and I by buying Iron Man and Iron Man 2 on Blu-Ray at Best Buy. I love free movie ticket offers.