Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Glancing at a “news” article recently, I read that Avengers: Age of Ultron is the highest-grossing U.S. film release of the year. In other news: water is wet. For God’s sake, this is a non-story considering the drivel it was competing with during Q1. According to Wikipedia, Age of Ultron is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time but, as we know, just because something is successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

After the heart-stopping success of the first Avengers film, Joss Whedon reprises his position as both writer and director. If you’ve seen The Avengers, you’re essentially in for more of the same; that is, a heavy emphasis on frenetic, computer generated action sequences. Indeed, they deserve an in-depth focus because that’s basically all that’s on offer. Like The Avengers, we’re treated to a slew of highly choreographed, fast-paced, but ultimately superficial fight scenes, all of which fail to disguise the fact that the plot is an insipid, go-nowhere sightseeing tour of exotic locations.

The problem with a lot of the fight scenes in Age of Ultron is that there’s no weight or impact to what we’re seeing. The heroes dispatch the enemies with such expediency that it hardly makes a difference whether the bad guys are there or not, meaning that any dramatic tension dissolves right before our eyes.

Before the advent of CG, there was a school of thought that dictated that superhero movies were an unwise proposition because even with the most intricate practical sets, it was still a tall order to capture the larger-than-life spectacle of comic books. Now, however, I can’t help be feel that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction as we find ourselves living in a time when the average superhero movie can be made of ninety-five percent green screen.

Chunks of rubble and smashed scenery fly around like they’re made out of cotton, and the over-reliance on computer generation means that everything has a weirdly clean, unreal-looking quality to it in a way that reminds me unsettlingly of the Star Wars prequels. I noticed a significant visual downgrade as soon as the action sequences started up, although I did have the misfortune of seeing the film in gimmicky RealD 3D bullshit vision—which inevitably makes everything look atrocious—so I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt there.

So, the action is more of the same, but what about the characters? Well, that’s where Whedon really decided to knuckle-down and ruin everything. A critic I like once made the observation that Whedon has no conception of character voice, meaning that the dialogue of each character is virtually interchangeable with the others. And more to the point, enough with the fucking quips, Whedon! Not every character has to make some pedantic retort or vapid observation every time they open their mouths!

I felt like I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where every line of dialogue is some smarmy insipidity that makes you want to kick the offending character’s teeth in. It’s almost like Age of Ultron was written by the same amateurish, ham-fisted—oh, wait. Come on, Whedon. Give us a little substance, for God’s sake—not the adventures of the Bland Brigade.

A big problem with the film is the introduction of the new character, Vision. He’s some kind of android, I guess, infused with the power of one of the infinity stones, but despite establishing that the Avenger’s couldn’t possibly defeat Ultron without Vision’s help, he contributes nothing during the final showdown. Excuse me, that’s not entirely true. He punches him. Once. Ultimately his presence would have meant precisely as much whether he was there or not, apart from Disney having a new toy to sell, obviously.

There’s also been an attempt to characterize Black Widow and Hawkeye, and while I can appreciate the intention, Natasha Romanov’s character seems to have done a complete 180 in between films. From uttering the line, “love is for children,” in The Avengers to “I adore you,” in Age of Ultron, she didn’t seem to undergo an arc so much as Whedon decided to arbitrarily fuck around with his own canon for the sake of poignancy.

I mentioned the plot a moment ago, so let’s refocus our sights. Weirdly, the events of Age of Ultron are decidedly scaled-down compared to those of the first, mainly due to a reliance on telling rather than showing. The alien invasion of New York is swapped for a rouge AI trying to do…what, exactly? Kill everyone, presumably—but his motivation for doing so seem incredibly poorly justified, despite multiple villainous monologues filled-to-bursting with meaningless pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

We’re told on multiple occasions that if the villain succeeds, billions of people will die. The most we see in the film, however, is one little town being terrorized via some kind of anti-gravity device. My point is that it would have helped if we had seen or heard a demonstration of the destructive capability of this plan (like the destruction of Alderan in A New Hope, for example) instead of just having to take Captain America’s word for it. There’s also an early setup about a growing anti-Avengers sentiment among the populace, complete with anti-iron man graffiti on some walls, but that aspect of the plot is quietly dropped and never referenced again.

The larger story, furthermore, is rife with plot holes, mostly concerning Ultron’s evil plan. For example, consider the impossibility of destroying a true, adaptive AI that’s been established to already be inside the Internet, replicating itself. Tony Stark brings it up at one point, but seems to forget about it just as quickly. And again, was Ultron not forward-thinking enough to station one, or five, or ten robots outside of the town that his consciousness could inhabit as a contingency? The devil is in the details, Whedon. Perhaps with a little more polish, the script wouldn’t seem like it was rushed out in a week in an attempt to capitalize on a pre-existing franchise.

I think the reason that the first Avengers film worked was because we were all collectively taken in by the massive lead up, and were mostly happy to see the characters that we had come to love play around in a big, explosive blowout of a film. As cathartic as The Avengers was, it was totally inept when it came to actually telling a story—a problem which is compounded to a rather worrying degree in Age of Ultron.

Some might respond to the points I’ve raised by saying “it’s a superhero blockbuster. What did you expect?” But to them I would respond by saying that excuse doesn’t brook with me when Avengers: Age of Ultron exists in the same world as The Dark Knight.

Disney has the luxury of having no real competitors in the superhero genre at present, but if they keep pumping out more toothless work like this, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the public eventually recognizes it for the schlock that it is.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Big Hero 6

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It seems like you can’t walk ten feet these days without being mauled by various superhero paraphernalia, whether it be ads for new marvel movies, action figures, or Happy Meal toys. Naturally, since Disney won’t be satisfied unless they have all the money instead of just most of the money, they’ve decided to dig deep into the Marvel back-log and have pulled out the obscure Big Hero 6, on which today’s film is exceedingly loosely based.

The film comes to us from the superstar tag-team duo consisting of Chris Williams and Don Hall. Williams, also from the 2008 animated extravaganza Bolt, and Hall, also from absolutely nothing, collaborate on this big-budget production, ostensibly a stand-alone universe not convergent with that of the larger Marvel canon. As is the case with mush of Disney’s more recent productions, the visual flash and sparkle was superficially impressive, yet utterly failed to distract me from the tissue-thin plot, two-dimensional characterization, and dialogue that sounded as though it was written by a ten-year-old.

Big Hero 6 features a mostly ensemble cast, including the vocal talents of Ryan Potter as protagonist Hiro Hamada and Scot Adsit as his robotic medical caretaker Baymax. The cheesy-sounding dialogue might be exacerbated, especially in the case of Hiro’s friends, who constitute the other four members of the titular superhero group Big Hero 6, because their every line of dialogue comes across as so obnoxiously enthusiastic, regardless of the situation or the context in which it’s said. There’s very little wit and they way in which the characters play off one another seems very canned and forced at times, not helped at all by the fact that the supporting cast only seems to have one or two archetypical character traits each: i.e. ‘the black guy,’ ‘the slacker,’ ‘the tough-girl,’ etc.

According to Wikipedia, Disney pumped a ton of cash into some state-of-the-art graphical rendering hardware in order to produce the film; while the visuals are undeniably stunning, considerably less attention has been afforded to the story, and the film suffers for it. By far, the most engaging parts of the movie are the interactions between Hiro and Baymax, and while those parts are admittedly filled with a lot of heart, that’s really all the actual substance that plot has on offer. It’s almost as though someone came to the frantic realization that the title of the movie ends in a six and not a two, and basically went “Oh, shit. We’re going to have to cram another four characters in here somewhere!”

Even during the combat sequences (of which there are surprisingly few, given the whole “superhero” thing) the supporting cast hardly seem like they’re even given anything interesting to do, calling into question the necessity it all. It’s pretty clear that Disney is going to try to make an ongoing franchise out of Big Hero 6, so maybe we’ll get more development from the characters as the series continues; honestly, I’m kind of excited to see more, as the visual design and diegetic world-building are all top-notch and really visually compelling.

At the end of the day, Disney gets a new line of toys to sell and Marvel gets to buy another yacht, but for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Big Hero 6, it’s a barebones action-comedy with a flimsy plot, buoyed by some pretty excellent visual design and a fun and interesting dynamic between the central characters.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Wolverine Review

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It would be an understatement to say that it’s been a phenomenal year for Marvel. With Iron Man 3 earning over 1.2 billion dollars, and Thor: The Dark World slated for an early November release, the folks over at Marvel are riding high. Perhaps it’s this financial security that’s allowed Marvel to take a slightly more edgy approach to their new X-Men film, titled simply The Wolverine. As the name would suggest, the film centers on a specific arc of one of the most popular X-Men, and adds a definitively strong title to the historically shaky film series.

Director James Mangold takes the helm of The Wolverine– his first Marvel production. With an incredibly mixed resume including hits like Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted as well as some real misses like Identity and Knight and Day, Mangold is admittedly an interesting choice to take on a summer blockbuster like this. Not only does he rise to the occasion, but he manages to take a franchise that has disappointed fans in the past with entries like X-Men Origins: Wolverine into new and interesting territory, choosing to keep the focus tight and centralized on one specific character. Based on a popular run in the comic book series, The Wolverine was written primarily by Christopher McQuarrie with the uncredited assistance of Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. This, to me, is interesting, because parts of the film seem to be very self-contained and stand effectively on their own, but other parts, specifically the ending, seem have the stench of committee design and compromise about them.

Hugh Jackman reprises his role from previous X-Men films as the beloved Wolverine. More than being the straight-talking, cynical badass du jour, however, the more narrow focus of the story allows for some interesting themes to be explored, such as mortality, family, and redemption. As the story mainly takes place in Japan, Jackman is virtually the film’s only caucasian actor. Most Japanese actors present in film, such as Tao Okamoto (Markio) and Rila Fukushima (Yukio), may be unknown to American audiences, though more illustrious actors such as Hiroyuki Sanada (Mr. Yoshida) also make an appearance.

Happily, Mangold knows how to handle his action sequences and is able to pull of some sensationally fun and impressive choreographed fight scenes incorporating both a pleasing, fluid, Eastern style of fighting which is contrasted interestingly with Wolverine’s more Western brawler style. Likewise, the asian aesthetic in a general sense is used to great effect, as it proves to be not only visually engaging, but adds an element of freshness and charisma that the film would have sorely missed otherwise.

In terms of character development and story, The Wolverine mixes things up in comparison to other summer blockbusters. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of the character definitely lends itself well to one of the more human and flawed superheroes that we’ve seen in a long time, to say nothing of this summer. My reaction to the narrative, however, came in three distinct parts. First, I was completely onboard with the story, characters, action, and aesthetic as Wolverine was revealed to be hiding out in the Yukon and troubled by his past. Second, about halfway into the film, I was confused by an overly complicated plot as issues regarding ninja clans, inheritance, and auxiliary characters were all introduced in rapid succession. Finally, I was troubled towards the end as events and motivations proved to be downright incomprehensible. What I’m sure was intended to be a shocking final climax was, in realty, kind of nonsensical. It’s always dangerous to wait until the end of a movie to do something drastic with the story because people tend to remember the end of a film more clearly than they remember other parts. If the big reveal doesn’t work quite as well as the director intends it to, it’s very likely that the audience will walk away with a bad taste in their mouths, even if the rest of the film was essentially decent.

Be that as it may, The Wolverine is still a very well executed blockbuster that manages to keep the X-Men franchise fresh and interesting. With impressive action and an engaging aesthetic, there is certainly a lot to like. Although the story starts to bob and weave senselessly towards the end, there’s still plenty of good to take away from the film for an enjoyable experience.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Iron Man 3 Review

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First off, let me take a moment, on behalf of the Simply Film crew, to apologize for last week’s little hiatus. The college student is a fickle beast at the best of times, and when finals roll around, we tend to withdraw into an autistic state, colloquially known as “couldn’t be asked.” Now that exams are coming to a close, we can get back to what really matters: the movies.

This week, the year’s first superhero flick hitting the big screen was Iron Man 3. I think the film has already made more money than exists on the entire planet, and if you do in fact posses the ability of sight, chances are good that you’ve already seen it around 2 or 3 times. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at what old Tony Stark has up his sleeve this time around.

Iron Man 3 is helmed by genre veteran Shane Black, who perhaps does action comedy better than anyone else in the industry. With accomplishments like Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang filling out a robust resumé, the bar was set preposterously high for Iron Man 3- his first foray into the Marvel universe. Happily, Black doesn’t disappoint as far as both the action and the comedy are concerned, and real effort has been made to flesh out Tony Stark as a character as he interacts with people and situations in his trademark caustic manner. Action sequences, likewise, are explored in a fresh new way as Stark’s toys get a fun, new spin and provide for some enthralling visuals. In an unprecedented turn, I actually recommend investing in the jaw dropping 3D experience if you have the chance and are willing to drop the extra cash.

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, who at this point in his career has almost reached cult hero status, in the same vein as Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack. While I appreciate that RDJ is a polarizing figure, with some folks being off-put by his flamboyant personality, it’s basically accepted fact that no Iron Man, past or future, will equal his. RDJ captures Stark’s incorrigible roguishness and scathing brand of humor like no one else can. Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow also reprise their roles as Col. Rhodes (aka War Machine) and Pepper Pots, respectively. The surprise standout, however, was the supremely talented Ben Kingsley as an ‘international terrorist’ known as The Mandarin. Kingsley gave a delightful and genuinely charming performance, which was unfortunately let down by some extraordinarily disappointing writing.

I’ve got a slew of issues with this film which are exacerbated by a thick coating of disappointment. The film had so much going for it: the cast was talented, it had a budget larger than the GDP’s of several third world countries combined, and it had the entire wealth of the Marvel canon to draw from. Why, then, did it ultimately fall flat?

Good question! The story is a good place to start. The weird thing about Iron Man 3 is the Iron Man as a charter is barely involved in it at all. From the beginning, he’s reactionary, and simply responds to what’s happening around him. In a normal hero story, the plot is driven by the actions of the protagonist, which allow the audience to get invested in the struggles of a single individual. Here, Iron Man could have sat around catching up on episodes of Game of Thrones (save the final showdown, obviously) and things would have been largely the same. In the second act, the story takes a wrong turn at the corner of Contrived Cove and Arbitrary Avenue, with characters serendipitously being in the right place at the right time when Tony Stark just so happens to blow into town. The relationship between Pepper and Tony is quite stilled and unconvincing, which is important because the old girl is kidnapped (Kidnapping? In a Shane Black movie?) and the audience feels no motivation to get her back. Come to think of it, her whole role in relation to Tony is strange too. She seems to show no empathy towards Tony when he is shown suffering from severe symptoms of PTSD, even when Tony entreats her to be patient with him. With this kind of unconvincing relationship, it’s hard to get engaged in the personal struggles of the characters.

And the twist. Oh, the twist! I can’t really talk about this next section without revealing the  SPOILERS BELOW, so be warned. About half way through the film, The Mandarin- the big baddie that the whole movie has been hyping up- is revealed to be nothing more than a hoax, orchestrated by a character we were introduced to earlier. But here’s the thing: The Mandarin is replaced by a completely generic, uninteresting, uninspired, insipid, bland, banal, trite, and ultimately boring charter who has no distinguishing characteristics aside from being the evil white guy du jour. With an absolutely ambiguous and arbitrary motivation, Whitey seems to want to be in charge just for the sake of being in charge. That’s not good storytelling! That’s just laziness! At least The Mandarin was interesting to watch.

To me, Iron Man as a series is finished. I was curious to see how the franchise could continue to ramp up the stakes after the presumably world-shattering events of The Avengers. My big questing was “Where do we go from here?” Sadly, Iron Man 3 provides no answer, and doesn’t seem to keep the series fresh enough to warrant another sequel. Nevertheless, we’re reminded at the during the credits that “Tony Stark will return,” but the only place that I see him still being relevant is in The Avengers 2.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Amazing Spiderman Review

Let me just start out by expressing my love for the Sam Raimi Spiderman movies.  Excluding the third, his Spiderman movies are some of my favorite superhero movies ever made.  As a result, I really didn’t feel that this franchise needed to be rebooted and I was concerned it would be a straight remake, which thankfully this isn’t.  While I wouldn’t describe this new Spiderman movie as “amazing” for a few reasons, it is a much better film then I expected but still isn’t different or ambitious enough to justify restarting this franchise so soon.

After being bitten by a spider that gave him arachnid like abilities, brilliant loner Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) searches for answers about his father’s life work while protecting the city as the masked hero Spiderman.  Due to my loyalty to the Raimi Spiderman films, I had a lot of trouble envisioning anyone other then Tobey Maguire playing Spiderman, but in retrospect I will admit Maguire was an odd choice for the role and Garfield’s Peter Parker seems to be the superior version of the character.  Actually, I felt that much of the casting in this movie was better then in the Raimi films.  Emma Stone does very well as the love interest Gwen Stacy, and Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben is one of the best parts of the film, as this new Uncle Ben is a much funnier and lovable character than the one in the first movie.

As far as the actual content of this film, my overall impression was everything in it was fine.  The action sequences in this movie were satisfying, but not particularly robust or memorable.  The villain in this film served his purpose, but was not very interesting or deep, especially when you compare him to past villains like Norman Osborn or Dr. Otto Octavius.  Even the climax of this film did not have much of an effect on me despite the fact that the stakes were so high going into it.  Quite possibly, this is because, in a lot of ways, I have seen this movie before, and despite a different villain and a few changes in characters, it is impossible to shake the feeling that this is very similar to the Raimi films, but ultimately not as successful as those films were.

Had the Raimi films never existed, it would be much easier to like this movie.  Since this movie is really not a different or edgy take on the Spiderman story, it is hard to escape the fact that you know his origin story going in, so nothing really has the impact it did in Spiderman.  This movie had the potential to change the tone of Spiderman movies for the better, but in the end it just settled for changing the actors.

Rating: 3 out of 5