“Thor: Ragnarok” Review

Thor always felt like a character of untapped potential. He’s a god of thunder that defends his mystical kingdom of Asgard from the other intergalactic forces of the nine realms. So why does everything have to take place on Earth? Finally ditching his female love interest, Thor finds on a new mission where he gets to fight more monsters, meet more odd characters and travel amid the most lavish of locations. It’s more fun to watch his adventures on a junker planet of gladiator combat than stopping yet another doomsday device from blowing up the planet. There are more than enough heroes on the planet for the hammer-wielding god to have a Work-From-Home-Realms week.
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“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.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

The ‘X-Men’ are easily one of the most intriguing and interesting superhero teams in comic book history. It’s been a long time since those awesome stories have actually resonated on the big screen. The franchise over the last four years has gone downhill into routine action shlock. Thankfully, Brian Singer has returned to deliver one of the best ‘X-Men’ movies ever made based on one of the most memorable stories. You know how some comic book fans will often talk about their favorite sagas and how those would make the best films, but would probably be muddled in production? This is the first comic book film to finally get the formula right and it’s a more than welcome presence for the genre.

The future for the ‘X-Men’ is a dark and depressing time as mutants are hunted down and murdered by the robotic Sentinels. Able to adapt to any superpower and outnumber their opposition in numbers, the few remaining mutants struggle to hide and survive. Notable regulars Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Paige) are a few of the remaining mutants from the old guard. Their last hope is to travel back in time and undo the events that led to this dismal state.

Using Kitty Pride’s unique time-traveling ability, Wolverine is sent back to 1973 to undo the crucial moment in history that set off a horrific chain reaction. The Sentinels were developed by Trask (Peter Dinklage), but did not receive the proper funding and attention until Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders the President of the United States. To prevent this assassination, Wolverine rounds up the old gang that includes Xavier, Beast, Magneto and Quicksilver for a brief prison break of Magneto. At the same time while Wolverine is desperately trying to change history, his friends in the future are tragically trying to keep him in the past before the Sentinels end them all.

Explaining to everyone in the past what will happen in the future is easy for Wolverine. The tough part is attempting to change the minds of those who act on their fears to prevent catastrophe. Xavier has shut himself off from his telepathic abilities, Beast is ashamed of his abilities, Mystique is entirely driven by revenge and Magneto seems to think he can handle all of this with no regard for others. Therein lies the challenge not just for Wolverine, but for all the characters to grow as better or worse individuals who will shape the world with their actions. So, essentially, it’s Back to the Future with much more epic consequences.

This is the first ‘X-Men’ film Bryan Singer has directed in at least a decade. His last film was ‘X-2: X-Men United’, the only ‘X-Men’ film I actually enjoyed. Now he’s blown the rest of the franchise away with this pitch-perfect direction of the classic comic arc. What makes his effort so different and so effective is how much Singer holds back. He never inserts more mutants or action sequences than what is needed to make the film work.

Early in the film, Mystique saves a group of mutant soldiers from being experimented on by Trask Industries. I was almost positive these mutants were going to be thrown into a large scale sequence later on. To my surprise, they serve their purpose of just establishing the climate of mutants for this era. The final confrontation of the film is the showdown we were prompted for, but it’s a rather genius scene for how Magneto plans to be the victor. He traps the area of the White House by lifting a sports stadium to create a perimeter. It’s a smart use of his mutant powers and still manages to feel epic in scale. It’s a far cry from when Magneto moved the Golden Gate bridge for the silliest of reasons.

Quicksilver, despite his short appearance, manages to steal the show with his comical personality and speedy displays. The scene where he disables a room full of security guards from shooting down our heroes is both stunning, clever and a whole lot of fun. He’s much needed smile in a story that’s mostly gloom and doom. Also, if you’re familiar with Quicksilver’s family ties, there’s a brilliant little easter egg in the dialogue.

While there are a handful of fight scenes, hardly any of them felt pointless or drawn out. It helps that there was a main goal for which all these characters were fighting towards so that everything is kept in focus. Mystique, for how many fights she gets into, isn’t just being an atypical villain. Her mission is clear and she wastes no time saving her kind and wiping out the threats. It’s that added depth to the characters and their plight that makes the fights that much more entertaining.

What I love so much about Singer’s script is that he manages to maintain the overall story of the original content, but still make it balanced and work within a movie. By focussing the movie entirely on Wolverine, Xavier, Beast, Magneto, Mystique and Trask, we’re given plenty of opportunity to explore these characters and their ambitions. Trask, in particular, managed to be one of the most unique villains I’ve seen in a comic book movie for how three-dimensionally defined he ended up being. The man doesn’t really want to kill all mutants for revenge, but has a genuine desire for safety and the study of mutants. He’s a villain who truly doesn’t see himself as one at all.

With a story that jumps between two timelines, it seems like it would be easy to get lost. But the script manages to keep things leveled and focussed while at the same time not wasting a moment. That’s a rather impressive for a film with so many characters, even if only a handful get the most screentime. But even the primary characters never felt overused. With Wolverine being the one sent back in time to save the future, you’d think he took center stage. To my delighted surprise, he really only serves his purpose for setting the plans in motion and then literally leaves the stage.

While the plot is perfectly conceived for a time travel film, it’s the characters that really give the movie such value. We’re given a small group of characters that we can follow and understand rather than just a smattering of simple heroes as previous ‘X-Men’ films tended to be. Sure, we are still introduced to a large collective of mutants, but most of them only fulfill their purpose for the establishing environment, tone and urgency. As a result, even the smaller roles don’t feel wasted.

This is the ‘X-Men’ film every fan has been waiting to see and it delivers on all fronts. It’s that one dream production that every comic book reader talks about, but figured they’d never see. Thanks to Brian Singer’s skillful and tight direction, ‘Days of Future Past’ ends up being not only the best ‘X-Men’ film, but easily one of the best comic book movies ever made. Expect this film to be talked about years later as the perfect comic book film adaptation. One can only hope this talented vision rubs off on the future tsunami of superhero films.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Review

The sequel to ‘Captain America‘ is the shot in the arm superhero movies needed. While other films of the genre struggle to write in heroes and villains for a modern audience, ‘The Winter Soldier‘ is aware of exactly what it wants to be. It ends up being the only Marvel movie out of Disney that not only has a tight and intriguing script, but has a lot to say about our world’s security and how it can get the best of our trust. And the best part is that it still manages to get away with adding in more heroes and villains to an already exciting political thriller.

Trying to find a purpose for his place as an unfrozen hero in the 21st century, Steve Rogers continues working for Nick Fury of the secretive S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Continuing to don the Captain America suit, he ends up dealing with hostage situations and taking out terrorists. However, when he discovers that Black Widow and Nick Fury have been keeping information from him on his missions, Rogers begins to have severe doubts about the level of security and trust within the organization. The upcoming deployment of three massive Helicarriers doesn’t thrill him too much either.

Steve’s doubts are rightfully justified when a high level of corruption and assassinations start taking place within S.H.I.E.L.D. Trusting no one, Steve ends up on the lamb with crucial data that reveals an insidious plot leading to the rebirth of the long-dead menacing group, Hydra. And just in case wave after wave of secret Hydra agents armed to the teeth wasn’t enough of a challenge, Captain America must also deal with the mysterious and powerful Winter Soldier. This won’t be an easy fight as the Winter Soldier can match the star-striped hero’s power and has an emotional edge when his true identity is revealed.

Who would’ve thought that Anthony and Joe Russo, the two guys behind ‘Community‘, could deliver such a bracing thrill ride. These boys don’t waste a frame or a shot. It really embodies the whole atmosphere and complex nature of a spy film while still continuing the story of a soldier soldier frozen in time. For a film that features an old talking computer and cyborg soldier, ‘The Winter Soldier’ manages to be well-grounded conspiracy thriller that takes all the correct and exciting routes you’d hope it would take. The paranoia and fear of the underground Hydra organization infiltrating SHIELD feels very real and incredibly gritty.

This is due mostly in part to the action sequences which are beyond words. With Captain America hopping and skipping around wide sets while Falcon zooms through the sky, there is quite a bit going on in these scenes. And, for the most part, they’re not just excuses for flashy CGI (though it does look pretty cool when those Helicarriers ascend). When Nick Fury is assaulted by Hydra agents early in the film, it’s an attack that is hard and fast with no punches pulled. Hydra presents itself as a real and seemingly unstoppable threat especially with the Winter Soldier going toe-to-toe with Captain America. The fight scenes between these two are so brutal you feel every punch.

That’s not to say there isn’t any room for fun. The opening sequence in which Steve Rogers dashes around a captured boat taking out terrorists left and right really brought a smile to my face. It’s a scene packed with plenty of fun takedowns and witty one-liners that gets the movie off to an enthusiastic start. The two directors do get a little crazy with the shaky-cam effects, but that’s understandable given how much is going on. In the scene where the Helicarriers are in the air firing wildly in all directions, you really do want to see the entire area of carnage.

Once again, the Russo brothers stun me with a script I wouldn’t expect to be so grand and layered. For one, Steve Rogers is the most interesting of the colorful characters not just for how he attempts to adapt to modern culture, but also how he tries to comprehend the new state of security. He’s wary of SHIELD’s restrictions and the need for more weapons when trust and communications are placed on levels. Even with all his super-soldier powers, the man still feels helpless when there are so many forces at work behind the scenes that he ends up flexing more of his brain muscles to unravel the corruption.

This turns the film into more of an espionage thriller than your standard superhero film. It takes so many twist and turns that there never is a dull moment as you get to play the guessing game of who is working for Hydra. There are so many secret plans and weapons revealed in the epic climax I can’t even begin to describe the exact events within a few sentences. It really is a masterfully crafted dance of shocking realizations and pulse-pounding action you just have to see to appreciate.

But the most admirable part of the script is that on top of this great story, the Russo boys manage to write in the hero of Falcon and the programmed villain Winter Soldier. I was especially impressed with the development of Falcon, a character that appears in the comics as a little goofy and basic. But they actually give him a solid, modern redesign and a believable place within the story so he’s not just shoehorned in. Winter Soldier didn’t seem like too hard of a character to integrate, but it’s still pretty cool how the Russo’s didn’t compromise on the sci-fi tech of old-world Hydra. All this makes for one of the most effective balancing acts for a superhero movie I’ve ever seen.

‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is everything an exciting superhero movie should be and then some. Mixing the intrigue of an espionage thriller with the big-budget action sequences and heroic elements forms one of the most enjoyable film concoctions to come out of Marvel Studios. It’s not only one of Marvel’s best movies; it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made.

“The Amazing Spider Man 2” Review

This new ‘Spider Man’ may be a reboot of the movie series, but it seems to have the same problems as the old one. Namely, it’s come down with a bad case of sequel-itis we’ve seen previously in ‘Spider Man 3′. After opening up a new world with the first film, ‘The Amazing Spider Man 2′ is just in too much of a rush to cram in as much as possible. The final result is a bloated film with just too many yarns that hardly build or culminate. It’s never a good sign when a movie over 2 hours long still feels like you’re only getting have the story.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) continues to web-sling around New York as the titular hero. Despite the promise he made to the late father of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), he does his best to maintain a relationship her. Of course, the fear of losing her causes his relationship to fluctuate as new baddies arise from within the mysterious Oscorp. The sketchy corporate giant is at it again this time developing the villain Electro (Jamie Foxx) as well as the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) as a bookend throw-away experiment. All this is going on under the radar of Harry Osborne, seeking a cure for the horrific disease that claimed his father. As Harry tries to reconnect with his childhood pal Peter Parker, he starts uncovering the horrifying mysteries of his family’s company and begins to fight back against the corruption in his angst. Meanwhile, Spider Man struggles with trying to find a way to save everyone with disastrous results.

Much like the last film, this sequel manages to tap into some of the adventurous nature of the web-slinger, but never fully capitalizes on it. Just when we think Peter has found some joy in his life, it’s quickly snatched away by tragic villains or unfortunate incidents. It’s all well and good to throw some tragedy into the mix to give Peter a higher mountain to climb, but this film just piles way too much on to our protagonist. The climax of the film is so incredibly dark that it almost seems inappropriate to end it on such a high note. The segments involving The Rhino feel like they’re from another movie; a much more fun movie where Spider Man can deliver more bits and fight some entertaining villains. That’s the kind of a film I want to see as opposed to everyone around Parker falling down dark holes. If I want a somber hero’s journey filled with grim, I’ll watch Batman.

At over two hours, this is a Spider Man movie with too much going on that’s never really explored enough. There’s an opening sequence involving more secrets of the Parker family, but that is hardly ever developed past that scene. There’s some interesting mechanics to the unstable psyche of Electro, but, again, it feels like we’re only given half the story. What made the first ‘Amazing Spider Man’ so engaging was that there was one central villain with an organic progression to his descent. There’s just nothing to latch on to in this film. It just feels like a series of introductions for Sony’s forthcoming ‘Sinister Six’ movie. Movie’s should not be promos or commercials for better ones to come, regardless of being a bridge or not. The final result is a messy collection of Spider Man yarns. All the elements are there given how perfect Garfield and Stone are on screen, but they deserve far better arcs than the disjointed ones presented in this superhero story.