Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultron-concept-computer-wallpaper-pictures-jpg Three years ago we got the culmination of so much with the release of The Avengers. Bringing together a group of unlikely characters from individual movies and slamming them together into one epic finale; and boy did it work. Fast forward to today and we are embarking on a similar path, but the stakes are a lot higher for many reasons. Can Avengers: Age of Ultron deliver on the promise of more teamwork, world building, and copious amounts of fun? The answer is a resounding yes and with plenty to spare. Avengers: Age of Ultron meets those challenges and creates some news and hurdles them as well. Director Joss Whedon leads an ensemble cast of superheroes through a film that pushes everyone to be better. Whedon, who cut his teeth in television, has come a long way from serialized vampire vs teen girl shows. However, leaning on his roots of juggling large casts has proven to be his greatest asset. Its nice to have the director of these films be the writer as well because we can compare them directly to one another. In this case, we can see Whedon’s writing and direction have gone from good to pretty damn great. Creating more cinematic shots of these inherently ultra-cinematic moments makes the film feel more grand and works for the spectacle that we have come to expect. Whedon has said that the making of this film almost killed him, but it seemed the stress was worth it. He has pushed his writing and direction to the limit and we benefit from that tremendously.

The film picks up pretty much from the bonus scene at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Relax, if you didn’t stay in your theater seats for the extra you will not be lost. We are immediately introduced to Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as possible foils for The Avengers. They are “enhanced” and present a completely new set of challenges for our heroes. The entire team that we know from The Avengers: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are all back in action from the onset of the film. We get an understanding that the team has been leading missions from Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower). The teamwork aspect of the film is a very real change. We see the crew play off of each other and are more assembled than ever before, well in most aspect. Due to his extreme hubris, Tony Stark decides that he will build an artificial intelligence named Ultron without consulting with the team. Tony sees this as a way to be a peace keeping force in the world to end the era of The Avengers. Things like this tend to go wrong, and so it is the same here. Ultron is “born” and immediately decids that he needs to destroy The Avengers for the sake of mankind.

The film goes the ways in which you might expect, sans one thing. The film takes an amazing tonal shift at one point and really gives the most character development we’ve seen in a comic book based film in quite some time. Drawing the audiences into a scenario of actually caring for and about something. While I am sure less mature viewers will deride this as the “boring parts.” What Whedon is able to create is a space for us to know the characters deeper. Its a wonderful bit of film making and makes the impact of events that much deeper.

The performances by all the principal actors is much the same as we’ve seen before. All very solid with Robert Downey Jr. leading the charge as the most seasoned actor. Chris Evans’s Captain America has really come into his own since his last solo film. He has truly embodied the character. The real stand out without a doubt is James Spader’s Ultron. While not a human character, the role of Ultron was motion captured from Spader himself. We get all the great mannerism of the man and it works so well. His voice gives a bit extra “superiority” complex to the character. Spader’s amazing performance shifts from the inquisitive to the mad in seconds, the emotional spectrum makes for a villain who is worth the team’s time and effort. Combined with Joss Whedon fantastic writing, Spader has a massive sandbox to play in and you won’t soon forget his impact in this ever expanding universe. Ultimately, Avengers: Age of Ultron is what we want in these films. Its a perfect balance between fun, action, and depth. A true step up from the first Avengers film in every single way.

[easyreview title= "Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Lucy

Lucy The Year of Scarlett Johansson continues as she takes on the roll of Lucy. This contemporary sci fi flick continues the often used highly debated "fact" that we as humans only use 10% of our brain capacity at any given time. It asks what happens when we are able to use 100%. The movie answers that question in its own ridiculous yet enjoyable way. The title character Lucy (Scarlett Johannson) finds herself in Tawain for some reason which I don't think was ever explained. She ends up getting kidnapped by Asian drug kingpin Mr. Jang (Oldboy/Min-sik Choi) and against her will becomes a drug mule. They are trafficking a new drug that looks surprisingly like the blue meth that Walter White was cooking. The enterprising kingpin traffics his drugs by placing them inside his mules abdomens. During Transport, one of his employers apparently forgot how things work and begins to go to work on Lucy. The bag is damaged and she gets a massive dose in quite possibly the craziest acid trip anyone could ever have. When she awakens, she realizes she's got powers that she didn't have before. She frees herself from her captors and is on a quest to find out whats going on.

Throughout the film, there are scenes of exposition about the the human brain by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and what is possible when we are able to unlock its true potential. During all of this, Lucy needs to retrieve the rest of the drugs and get into contact with the professor all while being tailed by Mr. Jang and his band of thugs.

The film clocks in at a tight 90 minutes and moves at a fairly steady clip so it never gets boring. Johanssons dialog may seem a bit corny but damn if she doesn't deliver it to where you feel it. One thing that director Luc Besson knows is action and while there are very few action sequences, They are pretty solid. The car chase scene is easily the stand out.

It feels like the movie wants to be smarter then it actually is and while I commend them for trying it goes so far off the rails by the final act, you're just kinda left sitting there scratching your head as to what the message was. The premise is ludicrous. The dialog is incredibly heavy handed but handled with care by the actors and the action is solid. It's a very interesting movie because it should collapse under its own foolishness but it comes out being very entertaining. It seems crazy but for a movie that literally is all about the brain this is one of the few times I can truly say turn your brain off and enjoy the ride.

[easyreview title= "Review of Lucy" cat1title="Terrence's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.0" overall= false]

Review: Under the Skin

UnderTheSkin Based on Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Under the Skin is a science fiction character study starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien “woman” who preys on men in Scotland. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), the film is low on dialogue but heavy on imagery and message. Taking a unique view of what it is to be human and to understand the nuance of human interaction. This is accomplished via physical attraction through the eyes of an alien. When Scarlett Johansson acquires the clothing of a random semi-conscience woman she begins her explorative journey across Scotland to pick up single men. The film is one that never holds your hand and forces the viewer to glean more information than the average blockbuster science fiction movie does. Johansson’s unnamed character drives around random streets of Scotland doing her very best to attract men to come home with her. As you might guess this isn’t very difficult. The film plays to Johansson’s attractiveness in real life as well as her attractiveness in the film. Young men are willing to throw conscience to the wind for an opportunity with her. However, she doesn’t just choose any man, but rather ones who seemingly have no families. Numerous times she passes up men who mention they are headed home to their wives, family, or even roommates. Johansson is selective in her acquisitions. However, not until she meets a man who is very unique from all the others does she begin to see these men in a completely different light.

Transitioning from an automaton to a being of actual compassion begins to breakdown and ultimately destroy her world. She starts to try and understand and even conform to the norms of humans, but finds this to be an nearly improbable task. Even the most mundane of human activities give her pause. In the end, she is subjected to a moment of horror at the hands of a man and is destroyed because of it.

As I said earlier the film does its best to let the viewer draw a lot of his or her own conclusions. For me, there was no happenstance that the alien is a woman. Notions of attractiveness, agency, and violence were prominent messages throughout. Johansson’s attempts to pick up random Scottish men plays as a nice mirror image of what normal human interaction is, or is at least in western cultures. Men are generally seen as the aggressors or pursuers in these type of environments. Here, a woman has taken agency with the courting ritual and turned things on its head. Off putting to some men, but unsurprisingly they get with the program almost immediately. What she does with the men she seduces is strip them of their humanity. Much like some women have been known to feel after being treated as nothing more than a mere throw away object. The film works as a fascinating allegory for women’s treatment by men, and the devastating effects that those societal norms have created. An alien seeing men as nothing more than objects first and beings last is in a way the best way to describe the brutality towards women in the old world, and frankly the modern one as well.

The final sequence in the film is by far the most powerful. Johansson’s character reaches the end of her time on Earth at the hands of male brutality. She is separated from her true self (as others saw it), and is forced to bare everything to the world. A simplistic, yet beautiful moment of stellar film making in my opinion. Ending a story of a being that makes a full journey from emotionless to the truly compassionate. In the end, the film asks the most bold question: what matters more, who we present to the world or who we are underneath?

[easyreview title= "Review of Under the Skin" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

CaptainAmerica2

Marvel Studios has been an interesting experiment in franchise building since its first foray in 2008 with Iron Man. From the meager beginnings, the company has become a full fledge juggernaut with no signs of slowing down. Now into its second phase of movies, Marvel Studios is working to up the ante on all their known properties. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the third sequel of Phase 2, and it very well might be the best of the lot. Starring Chris Evans as Captain America, the movie takes on the ideas of corruption, raised stakes, and loyalty.

Directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, deliver an interwoven story that keeps the audience guessing while simultaneously not making things too confusing. Captain America: The Winter Soldier resembles 1970s spy action flicks in the best of ways. Slick technology, good looking and charming heroes, and villains who matches our heroes in equal measure. Winter Soldier is the pitch perfect example of how to keep these superhero genre films from going stale.

Our story begins with the first meeting of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). A great start to the movie with a light hearted connection between two characters who will become lifelong friends. Immediately following we are off to the races when Cap gets picked up by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson) after being called in for a covert mission. Since the events of The Avengers, Cap has been working non-stop on covert missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. and he begins to question motivations of its leadership. When Cap is ordered to retrieve hostages from a hijacked ship our adventures truly begin and really never slow down for 2+ hours. With an appearance from George St. Pierre, famed MMA fighter, as Batroc the Leaper in the first 15 minutes the movie feels to have already surpassed its predecessor in style already; we haven’t even started yet! After the mission is complete, Cap’s suspicions are further validated and his trust in some characters begin to falter. Cap is then introduced to Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a S.H.I.E.L.D. director, who asks Cap to go further then he has previously. Pierce is a very gray character and his motivations are simply too muddy to glean a clear picture. In an incredibly compartmentalized spy agency things begin to appear less than transparent. For a character like Captain America, these are the best stories. Muddled between what is right and what is his duty help with this type of character's exploration and makes him more interesting. However, even more than that is Cap’s past that just won’t stay dead.

When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is attacked by a shrouded figure named The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the spy world is thrown upside down. Cap works to find this elusive character and has some direct run-ins with him, which make for excellent action sequences. The level of action in this movie is sheer spectacle. Showing off more hand to hand combat was a major jump in the right direction. Lacking from Cap in his first outing and in The Avengers was his fighting ability. The Russo brothers fixed this and then some. Showing off Cap’s extensive physical ability as well as The Winter Soldier’s was fantastic. The pacing of the action was fast and intense. We didn’t get much shield throwing in the previous iterations of Cap, but here we get to see Steve Rogers really show off. You can now see why he is the leader of The Avengers, and not just a member.

At this point in time, Chris Evans is Captain America for me and many fans around the world. He will become synonymous with the role after people see this film. Evans is able to embody the pragmatic, no nonsense, and boy scout nature of Captain Steve Rogers. Anthony Mackie as the wise cracking partner of Cap was really great. The Marvel universe, and frankly comic book movies as a whole have lacked minority characters, but Mackie’s addition was greatly appreciated and I look forward to seeing more of him in the near future. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was better here and more explored than we’ve seen previously. Her character is getting more play in the gray area -- where she belongs. Last but certainly not least, Samuel L. Jackson has played it cool in all these movies with slick one liners, but The Russo brothers show you just why Nick Fury should be considered a badass. Its nice to see the top spy get some serious action moments.

In conclusion, Marvel Studios didn’t meet my expectations...they far exceeded them. Some argued that Captain America: The First Avenger was the weakest of the Phase 1 films. I wouldn’t agree, but what cannot be debated is whether Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best of Phase 2...it is. While a bold statement, I feel comfortable in saying that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel film to date, including The Avengers. Go see this movie immediately, it's your civic duty (even if you aren’t America).

[easyreview title= "Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: Her

Her

Director Spike Jonze’s latest science fiction/romantic comedy is a not only a fun and interesting premise, but a sharp piece of societal onlooking. Taking on the idea of a man who falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system that runs his computer seems like a easily dismissed topic, but in the hands of Jonze the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

We start with an awkward anti-social type named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He works, ironically for a company that writes heartfelt letters for those who can't do it themselves. The film takes place in the not so distant future where computers and artificial intelligence are now common place. Theodore's life is fairly mundane and routine, his letter writing is his only outlet. His job plays well as a juxtaposition of his own lack of ability to express himself to the outside world.

When walking down a public corridor, Theodore happens upon an ad for the OS1, a new operating system that promises a fully functioning custom artificial intelligence experience. Soon thereafter we see the unveiling of sorts of the OS1. Prompting unusual questions such as ones about Theodore’s personality and parental relationships the system begins to go fully online and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. Immediately you can’t help but to notice her ability to speak at a normal human cadance. This helps to get the audience through the premise of the man and machine connection. Samantha is no HAL9000 nor is she Siri. The breathy voice of Johansson lends to the notion of a real person just on the phone far away; making Samantha that much more valid. I found myself many times almost completely forgetting that this isn’t a person in this world, there would be no reveal in the end, no wizard behind the curtain. Instead, Samantha is as present and fully weighted as any other character in the film.

During Theodore and Samantha’s budding relationship we see some of his real life friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher) working through their own marriage, which seems at times to not be as even footed as a man and an operating system. This of course leads to the largest social on look of the film. Her asks the basic question of “what defines a relationship?” Its up to the audience to decide if what they have is valid. JOnze provides some breadcrumbs to move you along, but ultimately the decision is yours.

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is simply beautiful in the greatest sense of the word. Two people who are trying to navigate the murky waters of what life has to offer, together. While Theodore is slowly recovering from his pending finalized divorce from his emotional train wreck of an ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Samantha is learning the infinite space in which she resides. Both growing as people together at completely different rates and possibly directions.

Jonze has truly reached auteur status with this film, and there is no turning back now. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema. His flair for dramatic imagery and positioning is as close to perfect as I’ve seen in a quite a while. Spike Jonze really impresses with long and deliberate shots of thought provoking silence, tasteful sex scenes with only your imagination at work. He brings you into both Theodore, and equally, Samantha's perspectives. Phoenix has often been cited as one of the best currently working actors in Hollywood. Her, amongst his many previous works, makes that claim again...with purpose. Last, but certainly not least, Scarlett Johansson is fantastic as Samantha. She is able to exude a naiveté and curiosity of a child in parts, and the maturity of a woman coming into her own in others. Her lack of physical onscreen time is never an issue. She makes her presence known from the beginning and it never lets up. Her joins a group of absolutely stellar films in its release year. Run, don’t walk to see Her.

[easyreview title= "Review of Her" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]