“Avengers: Age of Ultron” Review

As the grand finale to Marvel’s second phase of their cinematic universe, the Avengers sequel aims to cram as much content as it can to deliver the biggest of bangs. But even at two and a half hours, it’s a picture that feels very cramped for all that it wedges into the script. There’s too many heroes, villains and murderous robots on screen that it becomes a rather complicated juggling act for writer/director Joss Whedon. The good news is that Whedon not only manages to maintain a certain level of balance, but also delivers more character development than I would expect for a superhero ensemble picture.

The Avengers have assembled once more with every returning character accounted for. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) continues to helm the tech of Iron Man, now more fearful of alien invasions from his previous Avengers mission. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America maintains his noble spirit after dealing with the corruption of SHIELD. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just sort of there as the dimensional-traveling warrior, wielding his magic hammer and blithering on about prophecies in his poetic talk. They all carry a little something with them from their previous movies, but it’s the characters without their continuing series that take a bigger chunk of the screen time (and for good reason). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has developed a relationship with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but they’re both frightened of each other and worry about their relationship. But it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who steals the movie this time as the slick-talking archer who gets the best lines and most unique life outside saving the world.

On their latest adventure, the group finds themselves combating the evil robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that wants to destroy humanity after Stark programmed him to protect it. Though relegated to just a voice, the motion capture performance of Ultron showcases him as more expressive than your usual movie robot bent on destroying planet Earth. This brings about a surprising amount of personality and charisma to a walking, talking machine that wants to kill us all. His philosophy is rather base given how often he talks about it and his method for wiping out the human race is pretty standard. All that intelligence and character ultimately leads to his master plan of chucking a rock at the Earth. Additionally, he build an army of robots to defend his project and give all our heroes something to hit.

In between this simple plot of murderous robots, several new characters and plot lines are introduced. We’re introduced to the Maximoff twins as escaped experiments of HYDRA – known from the comics as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – acting as ambiguous superheroes choosing sides. Though they were technically mutants (children of Magneto), there’s not mutants to turn to in this universe so they find themselves very cautious of who to trust. There’s the introduction of Vision (Paul Bettany), Stark’s computer program turned 90’s-looking superhero with the classic cape and painted face. There’s a hefty supply of Easter eggs wedged inside the script in the form of future villains (Andy Serkis as The Claw) and artifacts still on the self (the Infinity Gems to be used by Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet). And let’s not forget a seemingly endless stream of secondary characters the pop up from Nick Fury to War Machine to Falcon and so on. The only character who seems curiously absent is Loki. He wouldn’t add much of anything to the picture, but at least he would give Thor a little something more to do.

Even with a massive running time, the movie just doesn’t have a lot of time to explore all these areas in between the action. Whereas the first Avengers movie found enough in the script for every character to be involved, the expanded cast makes this picture far too crowded. There are a handful of scenes where Whedon relies far too heavily on exposition dialogue to drive the plot rather than visuals. If the Maximoff twins have a tragic past, why not show those evnets? If the people of New York are angered by the actions of the Avengers, why not give us that scene rather than hear a verbal report?

Several characters are shoved into a corner for many scenes simply because we don’t have time for them. Thankfully, the characters we do focus on the most have engaging arcs and are a thrill to follow. The complicated romance of Black Widow/Hulk and the secret life of Hawkeye are far more interesting than Captain America’s distrust of national security or Iron Man’s concerns for intergalactic insecurity. The big names have had their movies and politely step aside for most of this picture.

As expected for a $200 million picture, the action sequences are loud, detailed and gorgeous. Shot around the world, Whedon picks some great locations for a battle with Hydra or an Iron Man versus Hulk duel. And while he does go for the big moments of destroying buildings and smashing cities, there’s still a sense of heroism and consequence. While Iron Man and the Hulk end up causing a massive amount of damage to an African city, the movie doesn’t shy away from the folly of their ways. There’s still a level of distrust the public has after the events in New York City from the previous big battle. But the Avengers aim to do better with more scenes of them saving those caught in the crossfire from a family in a crumbling villain to a woman’s car toppling off a cliff. It’s a pleasant reminder that these superheroes are more than just powerful warriors that smash bad guys and blow stuff up.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron is rather overstuffed, it still manages to be a solid followup. The character chemistry is all still present and the villains have some wit and grit. Despite the laundry list of developing content to keep these Marvel movies more as serials, it doesn’t take away from being able to enjoy the movie on its own. You don’t have to know all about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the activities of SHILED or the secret operations of HYDRA to have a great time with the picture. It certainly adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not a requirement.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” Review

The only negative criticism I’ve heard for Mad Max: Fury Road was from one grumpy old man. After he left the screening, he remarked that the movie was nothing more than a long car chase with no story. So I guess if you don’t like car chases and differentiate them from the actual plot, Fury Road just isn’t for you. For everyone else, it’s a blast of post-apocalyptic action like no other.

Even though there hasn’t been a Mad Max sequel in 30 years, the world conceived by George Miller is easy to read and become engrossed within. Enough time has passed since the fall of civilizations that a strange culture of society has been built up within the wastelands. The empirical Immortan Joe – an aged beast decorated in revealing body armor and a fearsome breathing apparatus – rules over his land and people with bountiful resources. So organized he has become that there are now entire towns devoted to the development of gas and bullets. There is no lengthy introduction given to the full-scale of his operations or the white-skinned warriors that serve him. The movie simply drops us into this land of slaves, ridiculously cool cars and glory-obsessed madmen to let our eyes take in the specifics and not entirely our ears.

Our title protagonist (Tom Hardy) is played straight as the stranger who comes to town – acting as both a vessel for the story and the audience to Joe’s world. Though Max narrates the opening, he avoids divulging his past which is slowly pieced together throughout the picture. He may, in fact, have the least amount of dialogue – resigning himself to grunts and simple phrases. His actions speak far louder than any words in how he is able to dispatch foes with smarts and grit. So when he runs across the tough-as-nails Furiosa (Charlize Theron) – a female warrior of Joe turned freedom fighter for his slave wives – he doesn’t hesitate or undermine such a determined woman. We know they’ll work together, but only in the sense that any two strangers would trust one another in the wild west of cars and guns.  It isn’t enough that Furiosa agree to free Max from his chains and drive him to safety – Max still keeps a close eye on her and disarms every weapon she has in her rig. Which, given the abundance of firearms and Furiosa’s skills, is not just a paranoid trait.

It’s the little details that make Fury Road far more than just your usual post-apocalyptic picture. Immortan Joe assembles a collective of white-skinned soldiers known as the War Boys who live to die and worship at the alter of steering wheels. Through the conflicted and ill Nux (Nicholas Holt), we learn about the ins and outs of their culture from the pleasures of being witnessed by Joe to their kamikaze signature of dousing their lips in chrome spray paint. There’s a cleverness to all the craziness on the screen the way Max is used by the society as a blood donor. Can’t store blood in extreme heat? Just take the donor with you. Driving a car? Strap him to the hood. There’s also small elements of the world that are peered at for a moment, leaving the audience to ponder. Max and his crew cross a swampy marsh of men who walk on stilts and eat crows. It’s only seen for two shots, but they’re unforgettable ones that make you all the more intrigued and interested about this strange, strange world.

Perhaps it’s the abundance of classical music cues, but there’s a grace in assembly of the continuous chase as if it were a ballet. A bard accompanies the convoy on his moving stage built for him to play his flame-throwing guitar. Daring warriors bend and lunge toward vehicles with flexible poles that swing them back and forth. Characters crawl along, on top of and below vehicles all at the same time. It’s all just a brilliantly shot sequence of action that holds both a beauty in its choreography and an intensity in its grit. The film lover in me enjoys the tactful means of storytelling via amazing cinematography, while the campy action geek in me is gushing over monster trucks fused with muscle cars.

There’s a little something for everyone in Mad Max: Fury Road to make it one of the best action pictures of 2015. It managed to reduced the usually collected film critic Mark Kermode to describing the wonders of the picture by mimicking the sounds roaring engines. I can’t exactly blame him for being so thrilled with a movie so giddy with action, visual with its storytelling, intense with its violence and engaging with characters. It’s that rare breed of action picture that reduces the most jaded critics of the medium to pumping their fists as they nearly topple off the edge of their seats. The whole is just a joyous bit of film making or, as Kermode would put it, an extreme dose of the “vrrrrrrroooommmmmmmmm!”

“’71” Review

The streets of Belfast in 1971 erupted into violence with Protestants and Catholics at each other’s throats. The British army is called in to search homes for firearms. Their presence quickly garners the attention of an agitated populace. Fights break out, bricks are thrown and guns are fired. Before he can even comprehend what has happened, soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) finds himself outnumbered and abandoned by his unit. He darts through streets and pushes through houses as young punks with guns dash after him. We follow his every desperate move and breath that could be his last as he struggles to survive behind enemy lines with no weapons and nobody to trust.

As far as action movies go, ‘71 keeps the blood flowing quite vigorously. The camera is kept close and tight as Gary fleas for his life. Down the street, behind some cars, down an alley, through a house, around a corner and back up an alley the camera leads – never taking an eye off Gary’s fast feet or the gunmen behind him. Every scene builds on the intensity and corruption for a town drowned in tribalism and guns. With such ferocity for a true series of events, the script for ‘71 is kept tight and thoughtful for all its action. Though we’re mostly following Gary – a man we want to root for getting back home to his son – we get to see several perspectives in this dark setting. A young boy helps his sister with her homework before he drops everything to go out with his friends and kill Gary. A concerned couple debate about whether or not to help Gary with his injuries at the risk of being murdered for harboring the enemy. And a concerned group of British spies become agitated with the developing situation that finds them desperately trying to cover their true motives.

While the entire cast is remarkably extraordinary, it’s Jack O’Connell who steals the show. He already proved his strength and tenacity as the lead in Unbroken (another true story of a beaten man), but now he has safely secured his place as the next big action star. He bursts through fences, straggles away from a bomb explosion and tries to remain alive long enough for help when being strangled to death. O’Connell may not have as many chances to bash skulls, but he can take a hefty amount of punches. He’s a soldier doing his best to act on orders not to assault the public despite seemingly everyone wanting to blow his brains out. It still doesn’t mean he won’t defend himself against gun-toting bad guys – if he can muster the strength after being savaged.

Even with its collection of pauses that try to weave some expected twists and emotions into the mix, ‘71 managed to keep me on the edge of my seat. Not a frame feels wasted or unnecessary. When O’Connell isn’t fleeing for his life or taking a pounding, he’s grasping for life on the floor in his blood and sweat. And at the heart of it all is a story about people losing their honesty and morality in a dire situation. All of this makes for one of the most uncompromising and compelling action films of the year.

‘71 is one of the grittiest action pictures of 2015 that refuses to let your eyes leave the screen. The action-star presence of Jack O’Connell is powerful and the direction by Tat Radcliffe is precise with tension yet respectful to the material. There’s no reason not to buy what is sure to be the sleeper action hit of the year.

“Chappie” Review

Director Neil Blomkamp seems to be stuck in a time loop. While he initially displayed fresh talent with his 2009 sci-fi hit District 9, he fumbled with Elysium in 2013. Both movies took place in South Africa though Elysium was much more heavy-handed with its blunt message of a corrupt future. I was willing to write that picture off as studio meddling given the increased budget along with bigger names in the cast. Even Blomkamp admits that film was a misfire. And now I find myself regretting such forgiveness with Blomkamp’s Chappie, yet another blunt allegory taking place in South Africa. You fooled me once, Neil. Continue reading ““Chappie” Review”

“Taken 3” Review

The third entry in the Taken franchise is running on fumes. You can hear it in Liam Neeson’s voice the way he abridges his iconic line to “I will find you and when I do…you know the rest.” And by this point we do know the rest. Neeson runs around a city taking down bad guys with his bare fists and plenty of guns. But this time is different as nobody is initially taken from Neeson except his innocence. Now he must contend with mobsters and the FBI as he struggles to clear his name. In other words, the filmmakers just rehashed The Fugitive.

Liam Neeson reprises his role once again as retired Special Ops agent Brian Mills, too old for the service yet not too old to go on the hunt. When he meets his ex-wife in a discussion that sounds in his favor, she turns up dead with Brian accused of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now Mills is on the lam searching for the gangsters who wronged him while avoiding an FBI task force led by Forest Whitaker. I swear it seems as though Whitaker is reprising his role from 2013’s The Last Stand as he spends the majority of the movie duking it out with Neeson over the phone. The two characters never meet in their little game of cat and mouse as Neeson intimidates while Whitaker struggles to order his task force.

Whereas the previous movies took place in colorful cities of France and Turkey, Taken 3 finds itself entirely based in California. I’m not saying California is a drabber location in comparison, but it certainly seems to be shot that way. Since there are not as many alleys or roofs to scamper around, most of the action takes place is generic buildings/penthouses. Car chases through freeways and desert roads fill in the rest.

In an attempt to maintain the macho nature of Neeson’s gritty character, the movie struggles with trying to find new stunts and action scenes for the actor to flex his Charles Bronson-esque skills. This leads to some of the most laughably bad sequences for an action movie desperately trying to induce some thrill. These terrible moments mostly involve the car chases. Neeson narrowly escapes out of his car after it topples over a hillside and explodes. He swiftly avoids a truck’s cargo load that despite the size and weight is able to bounce off the freeway. And, in the most jaw-dropping was ridiculous stunts, Neeson takes out the landing gear of a plane by smashing through it with a car. Of course, the car is free of damage and Neeson doesn’t have a scratch on him. One would think that Taken 3 was in direct competition with the Fast and the Furious franchise.

When the movie isn’t trying to perform impossible stunts with cars, Neeson is performing his stock sequences of fighting, but not with less grit. There’s no memorable moment as when in the first Taken where he interrogates a goon with a car battery and cables. Both the filmmakers and Neeson are phoning it in with generic scenes of guns blazing and fists punching. It’s an old dog with no new tricks, supplanting editing and computer graphics for genuine grit and thrill.

The Taken series just needs to go to bed unless Neeson and writer Luc Besson really do want this franchise to become their Death Wish style paycheck until nothing is left. Liam Neeson initially said there wouldn’t be another Taken movie after completing the sequel. Whether he wanted to do this or not, he has certainly lost that action presence. He’s 62 years old and, as likable an actor as he is, just doesn’t seem to be all that into it. He really is getting too old for this crap and shouldn’t be wasting his time with such a lazy attempt to milk the last drops out of an action property.

“Green Street Hooligans: Underground” Review

While there are many movies out there that attempt to satirize the cheese of macho sports flicks from the 1980s, Green Street Hooligans: Underground seems to be one of the most earnest attempts at recapturing that goofy charm. It whips out all the old clichés of the sports training picture from the driving jog through the streets to the slow passionate scene of lovemaking to the quintessential giant of a nemesis. The soundtrack even echoes that familiar sense of 1980’s synth. Since it’s all kept rather subtle, you never really get that feeling of it being a-typical of the 80’s sports genre until about midway through the picture. There’s something rather admirable about a film that can keep up such a tone without added camp. It almost makes its spotty storytelling worth viewing.

What helps keep its 80’s sports roots well hidden is its premise of focusing on the world of street fighting football fans. Danny Harvey (Scott Adkins) returns to his old stomping grounds of West Ham when his little brother is murdered. Determined to find his brother’s killer, he decides to delve back into the world he left. He sticks around the pub to hook up with the lady bartender and acquaint himself with the Green Street Elite of fighting football fans. Out of shape and overweight, they’re far from being the best when it comes to street rumbles with opposing football team fans. Danny decides to whip them into shape for the main goal of tracking down his brother’s murderer (I think). There’s also an undercover cop in all the fighting seeking to find the murderer as well (I suppose).

Most of the film is dominated by montages with music. The violent drinkers hit the gym for some much-needed exercises before the big fights. They lift some weights, punch some bags and do plenty of push-ups. The fights themselves are treated almost like tournaments in the way the film tracks each street match. They take place everywhere from steel cages in fields to abandoned buildings with flares for lighting. They go at it like dogs, kicking and punching wherever they can land a blow, in some brutally bloody sequences. And, of course, there’s the sex scene montage which isn’t all that erotic in the least.

The fights themselves are very frequent and quite graphic. Heads smash through car windows, faces are stomped on by multiple fighters and groins are smashed. There’s not much craft to any of these scenes though. All the training they do for these matches eventually boils down to who can hit harder and gang-up on the most people. I also found it rather amusing how they keep track of these fights as if it were some sort of fantasy football league. This makes me question why the film couldn’t just be a comedy. The montages are laughable, the fights are over the top and the dialogue is just a comical mess of cuss words. I just couldn’t take such a film seriously for how straight it probably wanted to play up the world of organized underground football fan fighting. Then again, I was never much of a fan of organized underground football fan fighting. Maybe I’ll try to catch a few games on ESPN and see if it’s my thing.

Green Street Hooligans: Underground truly does feel like one of those forgettable and silly B-movies from the 1980s you’d put on for a laugh. But since I’m not so sure the director was in on this angle, I’m afraid I have to call it like I see it. This is a worthy rental as a party film to mock with your best buddies over a few beers. As a legitimate action picture about underground fighters, however, you’re better off finding something a little more grounded.

“Kite” (2014) Review

Of all the Japanese animated movies to adapt for a live-action presentation, Kite confuses me. The original source material was a one-hour, over-the-top action romp with ridiculously violent fights and overly graphic sex scenes. So disturbingly pedophelic were these sexual encounters that the general release had to be edited down severely with the “director’s cut” being released under a pornography affiliate. Tracing its inspiration, an obvious suspect would be Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional, a sub-par American remake of Besson’s superior action picture La Femme Nakita. Perhaps the producers of the Kite remake somehow thought that the talent would come full circle.

In reality, it’s a bland mess of an action picture drowned in cliché and confusion. The setting seems to have shifted from Japan to South Africa (never stated, but that’s where it was filmed). The world has just suffered an economic collapse and society has crumbled to a world of flesh cartels and vicious gangs. It seems like a more likely future free of robots and holograms, but most of the setting sounds like the present even without the economic crash. I guess that backdrop makes the abundance of mobsters and nightclubs more acceptable.

Our protagonist is the young vigilante Sawa (India Eisley), fighting her one-woman war against the flesh dealers to avenge her dead parents. She poses as a prostitute in her boldly colored wig and lures the men in with her sexual offerings. But, surprise, she murders them with skill just before they do the deed.

Her weapon of choice is a bulky pistol that fires bullets with a timed explosive charge upon impact. This sounds like it would make for some neat kills, but we never see any of them since she aims directly for the head killing the gangsters instantly.

In the opening scene, Sawa puts a bullet in the brain of her lasted perverted catch of the day in an elevator. The bullet is apparently strong enough to put a baseball-sized hole through the victim’s blocking hand, but not enough to blow away his skull. The music swells as the beeping of the bullet lodged in the corpse grows faster until there is a bloody explosions. This director is actually seeking tension in if a dead body can get deader. The movie never gives us that satisfactory moment where a gangster is wounded by one of these bullets, corners Sawa with a deadly assurance of her demise and loses a limb from the explosion.

But the a-typical mafia men in tacky suits are not the only opponents she has to deal with. There is apparently a roaming gang of feral humans that seem to be lost on their way to the set of Mad Max. They leap and bound from city structures like parkour artists on adrenaline. They travel in packs giving the standard whistle for more of their kind to join in the hunt for money, guns and whatever they can loot off their victims as they brutally beat them to bloody pulps.

Where are the cops in all this? They’re just as corrupted by the crippled economic state. Karl Aker (Samuel L. Jackson) is one such detective working semi-outside the law to give Sawa with plenty of guns and drugs. Her narcotic of choice is known as Amp which is apparently supposed to make you an efficient killer, but also degrade your memory severely. Of course, this clouds her true purpose for avenging her parents which will eventually surface.

Everything about this movie is sloppy from its laughable twists to its poorly edited action sequences to even the sound design. In order to make this vision seem just a tad futuristic, the movie adds these strange synth sounds to the cop car sirens. This sound clashes heavily with the techno soundtrack where you’re not sure if the music is building or if the cops are approaching from the distance. Supposedly, Rob Cohen (Shark Night) was attached to direct, but died before production began and David R Ellis stepped in to direct. Given Rob’s resume, it’s possible he could have delivered a movie that was just as campy as its anime counterpart. What we got instead is a dreary picture that attempts to be dark and bombastic without ever hitting either target.

Lacking in bite, blood and pulp, Kite is a remake doomed to obscurity if not for its bland production than its overuse of clichés. Honestly, how many more cherry-colored bob wigs do I have to see a movie prostitute/assassin wear before this trope is retired. I’ve already seen it used twice in 2014. Somebody please put a bullet in this tired device to put it out of its misery.

“Maleficent” Review

Be it the popularity of Game of Thrones or that trend of darkening up classic fairytales, Disney has taken a new approach to the story of Sleeping Beauty with a focus on the villainous Maleficent. But as the voice-over introduction implies, there’s more to the story than we originally thought. In fact, this version believes that the story is completely wrong. Maleficent wasn’t a villain at all, but a wronged woman who ends up saving the day. Such a route isn’t uncommon as the only two ways to make a movie about a villain is to either have them turn around as the hero or slink comfortably into their role of evil. But in the quest to make Maleficent the hero in this story, so much else is sacrificed in the name of making a female-friendly witch of great power and pathos.

The movie begins innocent enough portraying Maleficent as a curious, young fairy of the forest who fancies a prince that wanders into her domain. The two form a relationship, but their souls grow apart as the kingdom of humans threatens to encroach on the magical forest. Battles ensue between the king’s army of knights and Maleficent’s army of trees. Eventually the prince must make a serious choice about where he stands by cutting off the wings of his secret love. And this is the moment where the story loses all its character and tone the way Maleficent being de-winged is staged as a rape allegory with her being drugged, sliced and crying in a pool of her tears in the morning.

This would seem to be the setup for a darker path of a villain given how horribly wronged she was by her first love. But once we get to the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the iconic scene of the wicked witch cursing the princess, the movie starts dipping down into the depths of a mediocre fan-fiction. Rather than despise Sleeping Beauty and attempt to keep her comatose for eternity, the magical matriarch regrets her decision after years of watching over her like a mother hen. Rather than harbor some fleeting emotions of their earlier romance, Maleficent and the prince-turned-king are simplistic enemies. And rather than Sleeping Beauty being awakened by the kiss of a prince, she’s actually awakened by Maleficent herself.

All of this staged as if to imply that the true story of Sleeping Beauty was a massive coverup by a patriarchal society. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting a fairytale from a different perspective, but this one appears more vindictive than creative. The best part of the picture is Angelina Jolie as the cackling and sinister Maleficent, embodying the role as no other actor could. The worst part of the movie is everything else. The character that surround Maleficent’s arc are all one-dimensional. The king who descends into madness has no buildup – one scene he’s a boy in love with a fairy, the next he’s a babbling madman swinging a sword. Prince Charming appears in the picture, but only as a worthless red herring. The three fairies that watch over Sleeping Beauty are just forced comic relief embodying a female version of The Three Stooges. And Sleeping Beauty herself would have been better off spending the entire movie asleep with how little she has to say or do.

The consensus among both the writer, director and Jolie was that they felt compelled to make this movie as an aspiring figure for little girls. Sure, because this is what little girls want to see in a movie, right? They don’t want a fantasy story filled with enchantment and wonder – they want rape allegories and pathos in a tone-deaf revenge tale. The movie is entirely dependent on Jolie’s performance to hold this rickety narrative together that tacks on CGI battles and light humor. At its best, the grand effects of walking trees and fire-breathing dragons is serviceable. At its worst, the bickering of the fairies will have you tearing your hair out in annoyance.

Maleficent features Angelina Jolie all dolled up as the perfect villain with nowhere to go. She leaves behind every single actor in the dust as if her magical powers sucked every ounce of character out of the cast. Even her companion – a crow that transforms into a man – isn’t much for conversation. Though given how terrible the dialogue is of the three fairies, maybe he got off lucky. It’s such a shame that the marvelous talents of Jolie are wasted on a ham-fisted script where she has to act against cardboard characters. Sure, she’s a memorable character for rediscovering love and she emits a palpable charm, but at what cost? I want to love her and this movie, but it’s hard to do that when this picture refuses to define its characters or pick a consistent tone.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” Review

The fourth entry in Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers‘ movie saga has new characters and the same old flaws. It’s a clunky and bloated mess of a movie based on the popular 1980’s toy line and cartoon/3o-minute commercial series. This is the very definition of a mindless summer blockbuster that is all presentation and zero substance. In other words, it’s just another Transformers movie with all the flashy graphics and major plot problems we’ve come to expect from this franchise by now. It’s a movie that doesn’t so much leave me foaming with hate, but sighing in disappointment.

At almost three hours, this is a needlessly intricate plot for what amounts to a soulless robot battle. The Autobots, the ‘good Transformers’, are currently being hunted down the by the CIA after their last big battle resulted in too much damage and loss of life in Chicago. To dispatch them, the American government comes up with the genius idea to use the visiting Transformers creators in wiping out their own ilk. We know this is only going to result in the destruction of humanity when the creators turn on the humans, but nobody ever once bothers pointing this out. In addition, the government is also working with a science division to create their own Transformers with a new element known as Transformium (what an original name). In doing so, they end up reviving Megatron (rival villain of the Autobots) who now has the ability to a-sexually reproduce more Transformers for some reason.

None of this matters though as it’s all just an elaborate excuse for Mark Wahlberg and his family to run around robot-infested battlefields. Wahlberg plays a poor inventor who happens upon the Autobot leader Optimus Prime and is conflicted about helping him or turning him in. The decision is easily made when the CIA arrive at his door and threaten to kill his daughter unless he hands over Prime. They escape in a big explosion and it’s now working man versus government and Autobots versus Transformer creators. Instead of taking advance of all the various plot points and angles you could take from the multitude of story elements tossed in, they’re just stepping stones to the inevitable.

The computer graphics for the Transformers and the action sequences are top-notch as always with a nearly seamless blending of live-action footage and CGI. But what is it all for? None of these characters are developed enough that we don’t care who is killed or who shoots what. The entire last hour is a frenetic mess of moving parts clashing on screen. I can’t tell which Transformer is which with such horrible designs that lack any iconography or personality. How is it that in a movie year where we have films with CGI raccoons, ninja turtles and apes are far more expressive and competent then the smattering of gears that are the Transformers?

Why is Optimus Prime riding a robotic dinosaur and wielding a sword? Who cares – he just cut a Transformer in half. That is the only justification I could imagine for everything that happens in this movie. This is the very definition of a film with no shame. It doesn’t care that the characters are one dimensional. It doesn’t care that plot is a string of lame gags where everybody is comic relief.  And it certainly doesn’t care about the worst product placement I’ve ever seen – as if Bay is trying to outdo himself in this one department. If Michael Bay cares only about the technical aspect and none of the story, why should we give a hoot about anything in this film? It’s the junkiest of the junk food cinema, guaranteed to give you a brain ache.

“Lucy” (2014) Review

‘Lucy’ may not be one of Luc Beeson’s best action films, but it’s certainly his most ambitious and challenging given the subject matter. It attempts to find some meaning and reasoning to the essence of life from the perspective of someone who can see almost every aspect of reality. That’s not quite the story you’d expect from a director that specializes in gun-toting action sequences. And while Beeson still doesn’t shy away from his bread and butter, he at least takes some unexpected chances for a conceiving a very different action picture.

Our title protagonist played by Scarlett Johansson is party girl unwittingly forced into a drug smuggling campaign by a Hong Kong mafia boss. The blue powdered substance is apparently so powerful that a hefty dose can fry your brain. This does not bode well for the drug mules that forcefully hold the packaged material within their abdomens. Lucy, however, has her bag of the lethal narcotic opened, exposing her body to the harmful effects. Somewhat to her benefit, the drug increases her brain activity above the usual 10%. With her newfound superpower, she can read minds, float objects and fire guns with pinpoint accuracy. The only drawback is that her awareness will continue to grow until she eventually dies. With little time left on this Earth, Lucy makes the tough decision of what to do with new awareness as her time runs out.

Unlike this Beeson’s previous works, this scenario is not limited to a revenge plot. In fact, the revenge on this mafia head himself is very early, very brief and more of a torture than a takedown. She seems far more preoccupied by making sure the drug doesn’t get out into the public. Additionally, she takes an interest in a scientist (Morgan Freeman) who she confides her knowledge with and hopes that she can in trust him with the secrets she’s discovered. Of course, those expecting her to use these psychic powers on an onslaught of gangsters will not be let down either. She disassembles guns, traps the bad guys inside invisible walls and suspends them in the air to get what she wants.

Scarlett Johansson really puts her all into this performance as a woman who tries to grapple with her new understanding of the world. Despite her initial status, she’s not bouncing around playing all kinds of goofy parlor tricks with her new powers. She knows far too much about the world and finds a certain vulnerability at comprehending all of existence through her super brain. Her cold delivery and exploration of life creates a fully realized character that you both sympathize with and genuinely want to see her succeed in her end goal of bettering human life. I was surprised to find this in a film where the title hero is essentially an immortal god capable of perfect accuracy and undefeatable psychic powers.

While I don’t quite feel the film is as transcendent as it likes to think it is with some unsubtle editing, it’s still a wildly impressive visual treat that takes more chances with it subject material. It would be all too easy to play it safe by making ‘Lucy’ a simple story of a dying mutant’s revenge. Beeson attempts to say so much more about human existence with the piece even if he’s not exactly putting the puzzle together very accurately. This is an action movie that won’t exactly expand your mind with its science fiction angle, but it will give your brain something unique to chew on.