Sunday, May 24, 2015

ROAD RAGE: a review of "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Miller
Screenplay Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
**** (four stars)

Never will I ever forget the first time I became introduced to the dystopian ultra-violent world of Mad Max.

I was 13 years old in the summer of 1982, and on opening day, my parents and I ventured out to the River Oaks theater in Calumet City, IL. to see Writer/Director George Miller's "The Road Warrior." Starring the then relatively unknown Mel Gibson as the perpetually haunted and hunted post-apocalyptic nomad Max Rockatansky, the film's bare bones of a plot involved Max aiding a small community residing within a dilapidated oil refinery against the horrific onslaught of a warlord and his Mohawk adorned, leather clad wearing, motorcycle riding marauders, a battle which culminated in a fever dream of a car chase through the desert wastelands. The film felt like a jet propelled ride into oblivion and was also a feature during which I shielded my eyes more than once, and jumped out of my seat in applause often. Due to its unrelenting rapaciousness, inventiveness and ferocious shock and awe inspiring visuals and velocity, it was a film unlike anything I had ever witnessed before...and equally so for my parents.

You see, when going to the movies with my family, we were habitually late, missing previews and sometimes as much as the first reel of a film, thus making us remain in the theater to view what we had missed during the subsequent screening. The same occurrence happened with "The Road Warrior," where we maybe missed the first 15 minutes or so. As the film's next screening began, and my cages already supremely rattled by what I had already seen, I watched the beginning of the film to the point where my parents and I originally entered and to my surprise, my parents made no attempts to rise and leave. Before I knew it, we had watched the entire film for a second time and then we left the theater to head back home. On the way home, I asked my Father why he and my Mother didn't make any motions to leave, especially as I was convinced that they had been repulsed by every single minute of the thing. My Father then answered with with the following: "I just couldn't believe it! I have never seen anything like that and I just had to see it again to make sure that I really saw what I saw the first time!" That was almost exactly how I felt too.

Granted, it would be nearly impossible for any new entry within the "Mad Max" series to re-capture the feeling of experiencing this character and this world for the first time, but I have to say that George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road," the first Mad Man film in the 30 years since the third installment "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985), comes pretty damn close. At the age of 70, George Miller has returned to and has essentially re-created his signature cinematic creation with a blood boiling level of skillfulness and creativity that filmmakers decades younger than him have been wholly unable to grasp.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" now stars Tom Hardy in the titular role made famous by Gibson. Almost immediately, Max is pursued, captured, and imprisoned by the chalk skinned army of the War Boys, the militia of the self-imposed dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a terrifying figure with flowing gray hair, battle plates covering his muscular body and a face mask of long, gnashing teeth making him appear as being somewhat of a cross between Darth Vader and Bane from Director Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). 

In the land of the Citadel, Immortan Joe rules over the environment through his control over the area's water supply, as well as having additional influence over the nearby locations of Gas Town and Bullet Farm. Even more atrociously, is his imprisonment of five wives (all played by Courtney Eaton, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz and Abbey Lee) as his society's breeders, plus the additional imprisonment of all other able bodied women as sources of nourishment as their milk is being harvested.

But the one armed Imperator Furiosa (a volcanic Charlize Theron) has her own plans to at last thwart Immortan Joe once and for all and Max, again finding himself in the center of a violent vortex, adheres to his strict moral code as he aids Furiosa in her righteous quest.

George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a film of ravenous, rampaging momentum, as it is basically a film that exists within a perpetual sense of motion. Yet unlike most films that succumb to ADD editing techniques and an arsenal of CGI special effects that underwhelm rather than elevate, Miller keeps the CGI to a relative minimum and utilizes the craft of combining white knuckle performances, superior cinematography by John Seale, set and costume designs, practical effects and a world class team of stunt players to inject a visceral realism into the hybrid landscape of Westerns, punk rock aesthetics, grim Sci-Fi, and comic book/graphic novels. Instead of being a cinematic experience where you are numbed by the audio/visual bludgeoning, Miller makes you feel every physical and emotional impact like a body slam. Let's face it, "Mad Max: Fury Road" puts most action films to miserable shame and definitely makes "The Fast And The Furious" franchise look and feel like preschool kids riding Big Wheels on the playground.

It is truly amazing to me that Miller has created a film that functions as a 120 minute car chase film peppered with scant dialogue which resonates as much as it does, especially when I could easily go for quite some time without ever seeing a car chase or explosion ever again. What Miller achieves with "Mad Max: Fury Road" is undeniably exhilarating and exhausting, operatic and overwhelming and to do so with the barest bones of a plot is remarkable indeed, for Miller has richly envisioned a full cinematic universe with its own rules and codes, while it simultaneously and gleefully breaks down the boundaries of what the movies can actually achieve.

On a purely visual level, "Mad Max: Fury Road" delivers the goods with sights and sounds that dazzle triumphantly. A car chase through a lightning filled sand storm. A quieter but no less intense sequence set at night and within a blue hued field of mud during which Max and Furiosa attempt to get their rig unstuck as Immortan Joe's forces rapidly approach. And man, did I love the sight of the literally flame throwing guitarist strapped to a giant rig that was also augmented by War Boys pounding on a set of war drums, as they provided the film's villains with their own soundtrack into battle, much like the iconic sequence form Director Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), where Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his troops drops napalm bombs set to Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries." 

Thankfully, Miller understand that his film cannot resonate through mindless violence alone. Quite the contrary, and especially surprising within a film that contains so little dialogue, "Mad Max: Fury Road" not only has much on its mind, it is a film of surprising humanity and profundity. I have to say that with Tom Hardy slipping into the role made famous by Gibson, I felt that in addition to his incredible physicality and expressiveness, he injected a level of soul that I had not really experienced in quite the same way in past Mad Max adventures--a feat made all the more impressive as he spends what could be the first third of the film trapped, powerless and eventually manacled to the hood of a car.

Yes, the character of Max functions as a variation of David Carradine's Caine from television's "Kung Fu" (1972-1975) or most certainly, Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" character. Truth be told, Max is not really the engine that drives the stories of his films. He is the eternal drifter who finds unwittingly finds himself caught in situations he never created and somehow retains a certain moral compass within a lawless landscape. For me, Hardy completely nailed that unique haunted/hunted quality that exists within the soul of Max but for the first time, I really felt that sense of Max forever combating his specialized brand of physical, psychological and existential anguish. It's not Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome but Constant Traumatic Stress Syndrome! Mad Max is indeed the man who is desperately trying to remain sane in an insane word yet who always somehow finds whom to temporarily align himself with on his path of justice, fairness and survival.

Even as good as Hardy is, "Mad Max: Fury Road" emphatically belongs to Charlize Theron. As Furiosa, she also possesses her own specialized haunted/hunted quality but within the course of this film she is fueled by a bottomless supply of vengeance and a personal crusade that borders on the Biblical. Much has already been written about the feminist subtext of "Mad Max: Fury Road" (as well as the preposterously infantile male backlash) and to that I feel the need to quibble with those articles just a little bit. In this film, the feminist attributes it contains is no mere subtext, it is the story itself, the real engine that drives the film straight down the white line nightmare. And frankly, any film that contains a clan of women warriors named "The Vulvari" is certainly wearing its heart upon its sleeves.

What else does a figure like the cult leader Immortan Joe and his atrocities represent and reflect but real world monsters like the organization of Boko Haram and their atrocities against girls and women, for instance? Additionally, we have the War Boys, who do serve as radical extremists driven to acts of voluntary suicide with Immortan Joe's promises to live again in Valhalla, and how those promises play out in the conflict that brews over the course of the film within the ailing War Boy, Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult).

But even greater is Millers' explorations within the ideas of what women represent and ultimately are in the post-apocalyptic future of "Mad Max: Fury Road" and it is dehumanizing indeed. In this world, women have been devalued and dehumanized to simply functioning as nothing more than commodities to be owned and therefore, tortured, raped, abused and ultimately, discarded. The most beautiful are to be under Immortan Joe's lock and key as his band of wives, while all the rest are utilized as living milk machines.

With women being reduced to existing as "things," where does this leave a woman like Furiosa? With her one arm, that is often augmented with a mechanical appendage, perhaps Furiosa is a women who is not even seen as being a woman at all, as she is considered to be "damaged goods." She is neither dominated sexually or through any sense of nurturing or nourishment. Since she is not seen as being an equal to the men, and not even as an equal to the women, she is only an unknowable and underestimated "other" and with that, Furiosa becomes a weapon that Immortan Joe never saw coming.

For all of the women within "Mad Max: Fury Road," Furiosa is the defender and the emancipator and Charlize Theron provides her with a rightful gravity, rage and yes, empathy that provides the film with a depth that it otherwise would not have if it was solely one car crash after another. I also feel that by having Theron front and center, Miller has trumped the powers-that-be at Marvel (i.e. Disney) and especially DC who are falling all over themselves with attempting to explain just why they feel that their comic book feature films just cannot have a woman at the core. Furiosa is the possibly the most vital and vibrant action film heroine I have seen since perhaps Uma Thurman's "The Bride" in Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" series (2003/2004) and believe me, it should not take another 10 years to come up with a new heroine.

If I had any criticism against "Mad Max: Fury Road" it would have to be with a slight choppy quality to some of its action sequences. There were just bits and sections where everything appeared as if the film had been sped up faster-a quality I felt to be initially disorienting as it seemed to be a bit of a cheat. I guess that I missed seeing a certain fluidity to the chases, like what was seen in Director Steven Spielberg's peerless truck chase in "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) or the outstanding freeway chase section in The Wachowski's "The Matrix Reloaded" (2003), for example. But after a while, I got used to it as I felt it lent itself greatly to the film's rabidly hallucinogenic quality. Even so, as Miller proceeds with the next installment, which he has already revealed to be entitled "Mad Max: The Wasteland," I do hope he smooths things out a little bit.

That said, quibbles are just quibbles, especially for a film that is as bracing as this one and functions near the very top offerings of George Miller's oeuvre, including the Satanic, suburban satire of "The Witches Of Eastwick" (1987), the harrowing medical drama "Lorenzo's Oil" (1992), the dark, surrealistic children's fantasy of "Babe: Pig In The City" (1998) and of course, "The Road Warrior."

Certainly it can never be as good as the first time. But to start anew...George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" makes for a blistering beginning.

Just to keep you informed, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is indeed rated R for intense scenes of violence throughout. Even for a film that is as bombastic and violent as this one is, George Miller shows considerable restraint as to what is shown on screen and the violence is unusually bloodless. That being said, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast strongly recommends that you parents out there to not take any children under 13 to this one.

Monday, May 11, 2015

I JUST WANT TO BE POPULAR: a review of "The D Train"

Written and Directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

It is more than a bit confusing to me that a film this astute, odd and daring could also be so painfully obvious.

"The D Train," the Writing/Directing feature film debut from Jarrod Paul and Andrew Mogel, is a well intentioned, perceptively observed near miss of a film that could have benefited from a tad more nuance, ambiguity and depth. That being said, whatever minor criticisms I hold against the film certainly does not mean that Paul and Mogul didn't try their hardest because "The D Train" was effective, at times queasily so, as the duo certainly mined a true sense of pathos that Jack Black delivers in another strong performance that allowed him to stretch his dramatic wings even further within the confines of a most complicated character.

Jack Black stars as Dan Landsman, a suburban Pittsburgh husband to high school sweetheart Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), Father to their teenage son Zach (Russell Posner) and a newborn baby, and local businessman for a small company owned and operated by the kindly and old school Bill Shurmur (Jefferey Tambor). Conversely, Dan is also the highly unpopular yet self-appointed chairman of his graduating class' 20th High School Reunion committee, which is currently struggling to find willing attendees for the event.

While channel surfing late one night, Dan happens upon a national suntan lotion advertisement starring none other than Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), once the most popular kid of their graduating class. Feeling that if he is able to convince Oliver to attend the class reunion, the event will be an unquestionable success and therefore making himself, at long last, the hero, Dan travels to Los Angeles in pursuit of the supposedly famous Oliver Lawless and spinning an intricate web of lies in the process.

For a man who never at any point within his life ever existed as "the cool guy," Dan Landsman is about to discover just how far he is willing to go, and ultimately descend, in his quest to finally be popular.

With the concept of high school reunions and the resulting levels of anxiety the event causes for its main characters resting at the core, Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel's "The D Train" possesses quite a bit in common with the likes of Director George Armitage's "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) and Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody's bruising and acerbic "Young Adult" (2011), yet unfortunately is not as entirely successful as those films. What I felt "The D Train" achieved very well was the creation of a dark, angry and deeply sad character study of a figure whose lack of popularity as a teenager has taken such severe roots within his life that he not only grows unappreciative of all of his relative good fortunes as an adult, his lack of the popularity he feels that he rightfully deserved in the past has made him a pathetic misanthrope in the present.

Paul and Mogel do mine this situation for more comedic moments, essentially contained in the film's title, as Dan desperately attempts to create a nickname for himself (all terrible, by the way) utilizing the first letter of his first name to absolutely no avail. To that end, the tales he weaves about his high school days to his peers, wife and even his son are of such falsity that while we laugh initially, we soon begin to question whether Dan is delusional. as he constantly tries to re-write the past to the point where he believes the lies over the reality, due to the considerable pain the past has caused for him.

By the time he makes it to Los Angeles, after weaving lies to both his wife and boss about the purpose of his trip, and has now embarked upon a night's worth of cocaine, pain pills, and copious amounts of alcohol alongside Oliver Lawless solely to keep pace and to hopefully snare him for the class reunion, we are really only just beginning to see the lengths of Dan's deceptions to those closest to him as well as himself and the aftermath threatens to unravel him.

Before I continue, dear readers, I have to say that I actually cannot believe that I am about to reference the following film within this review but it actually does indeed serve a purpose. Here goes..

In Director Michael Miller's horrendously unwatchable and unfunny "National Lampoon's Class Reunion" (1982), which was indeed written by John Hughes, there was just one kernel of a good idea lodged deeply within the excruciating horror film parody: the character of Gary Nash, a figure so bland that not even one of his classmates are able to remember who he was. With regards to "The D Train," the character of Dan Landsman is a portrait of a very similar figure conceived and portrayed much more realistically and Jack Black skillfully finds the right notes that occasionally cut to the bone. With this role, I truly have to give considerable credit to Jack Black for again taking risks in order to grow as an actor as his performance, while not quite reaching the heights of his career best work in Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Bernie" (2011), shines from the same level of commitment and his willingness to fearlessly travel down some dark alleys.

Dan Landsman is a man consumed with a sense of quiet rage the bubbles and later explodes for injustices that only he is able to perceive and the class reunion serves as his final attempt for him to claim what he felt was his all along. This quality does indeed bring the character within the realm of Rupert Pupkin, Robert DeNiro's classic delusional misanthrope from Director Martin Scorsese's "The King Of Comedy" (1983), or at least Patton Oswalt's disturbed football fanatic in Writer/Director Robert D. Siegel's "Big Fan" (2009), and Black's work within "The D Train" is often heartbreaking as well as more than a little unnerving.

James Marsden, an actor who has never quite grown on me, also delivers some fine, textured work in the character of Oliver Lawless, a figure who falls into the same traps as Dan yet he arrives through the opposite side if the mirror of popularity. Yes, Lawless has snagged the leading role in a national commercial but when we first see him is Los Angeles, we can immediately see that this just may be his only big break, something that Dan refuses to see as he remains so in love with the high school hero of his past. But, what happens if you are an individual who has peaked at the age of 17 and has simply continued to fall further and further ever since?

For Oliver, attending the class reunion allows him to play into his classmates' (especially Dan's) perceptions and fantasies of being the one person who escaped the small town for greater fortunes out in the big, bad world. Regarding his relationship with Dan, this situation provides Oliver with a false sense of power, which he manipulates to his advantage once he does arrive back in his hometown and crashing in Dan's home with his family to boot. Dan, being so star struck and manipulative, doesn't realize initially that he is the one being manipulated. If Oliver Lawless is such a big time actor, why doesn't Dan ever question why he had to foot Oliver's plane fare and provide him a place to stay? It is only when Dan feels that his own sense of imagined power is threatened and ultimately, usurped that his fears of failure and insignificance are unleashed in a morass of bad behavior resulting in potentially disastrous consequences. But all is truly upended when Dan's fears of failure and insignificance collide with Oliver's.

Without revealing any spoilers, I will say that "The D Train" contains one sequence that truly arrived like a slap in the face and if you do scour the internet, I am more than certain that you will indeed discover what the sequence is. It is the moment where these two characters of Dan and Oliver collectively make a fascinating and even disturbing commentary upon the sometimes insidious nature of popularity and the power one can easily wield over another in the process. While shocking, it is not a sequence of shock value but it was one that made me truly snap to attention as it seemed that at last, "The D Train," after its lengthy set-up, had been so spun on its axis that the remainder of the film would follow suit in an equally audacious fashion. Well...

Despite the strong characterizations and performances and also for not treating the aforementioned spoiler free scene as a disingenuous nudge-nudge-wink-wink moment. and I do commend Paul and Mogel for taking every moment within the film very seriously, I did wish that they actually had more to say than they presented.

For so much of the first third or so of "The D Train," I kept wondering to myself just why oh why Dan does not see the obvious quality of his life as it is. Yes, I get it. He feels denied of some sense of recognition and admiration that he feels that he is most deserving. Even so, for all of his unpopularity, during his teen years and in his adult life, he did end up married to a very lovely wife, is now a Father, is set within his career, is a home owner and so on, and frankly, he possesses so much more than what some people are graced with in life. Again and yes, I understand that Dan's inability to see the greatness he has already made for himself is (partially) what makes "The D Train" a tragic comedy. But I do think we can easily gather this assessment of Dan very early in the film and therefore, we end up just waiting for the duration of the film to discover whether Dan finally sees, or does not see, his life for what it is and additionally Oliver for what he is and is not. This aspect gives "The D Train" an "is that all there is?" quality which does rub against the good and unrepentantly uncomfortable material that is often on display.

But, please do not let any negative thoughts from me persuade you from not giving a new independent film a chance, especially one that is  just so close as this one. In fact Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel have indeed created quite the cinematic calling card. One that makes me very curious to see what they come up with next time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

AVENGERS DISASSEMBLE: a review of "Avengers: Age Of Ultron"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

What hath Tony Stark wrought?

"Avengers: Age Of Ultron," Writer/Director Joss Whedon's sequel to his stupendously entertaining "The Avengers" (2012), as well as the latest installment in the ever expanding Marvel Comics film universe, falls just a hair from the astoundingly great heights set by the first film. But that being said, Whedon also plunges provocatively deeper than before, thus making for a film that is indeed more soulful, humane and even as bombastic as it often is, the film is unquestionably a decidedly more intimate affair than its predecessor.

Yes, I have often lamented about the excessive presence of superhero/comic book themed extravaganzas at the expense of other types of films being made quite often. But, as I have to admit to myself, I am part of the "problem" as I still continue to head out to the theaters to see these films, thus doing my part to increase the hefty box office spoils which only ensures that more comic book movies will be made.

Aside from perhaps Director Alan Taylor's lackluster, assembly line styled  "Thor: The Dark World" (2013) and Writer/Director James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy" (2014), which I still contend was not as clever as it thought it was, I have to also admit that I have been more than pleased with how well this cinematic universe is being constructed and executed. Alongside Director Jon Favreau's inaugural "Iron Man" (2008) and Directors Joe and Anthony Russo's superior "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), Joss Whedon has truly found a remarkably impressive sweet spot in bringing these colorful characters to rich, vivid life from the page to the silver screen as he seems to be less concerned with costumes, powers and special effects and more concerned with the people behind the masks. And trust me, dear readers, we are all the better for it as "Avengers: Age  Of Ultron" possesses a most inventive brain, a depth of soul and a strong, beating heart, while not diminishing the fire and brimstone for even a moment.

Like the movies of James Bond and Indiana Jones, "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" opens with Earth's Mightiest Heroes at the climax of their latest adventure. Their mission is to infiltrate a HYDRA outpost in the Eastern European locale of Sokovia and intercept the evil Loki's scepter, gone missing after the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.

During the melee with Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and his minions, the Avengers encounter Pietro and Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), fraternal twins who became the Baron's unwilling science experiments and are now adorned with the powers of super-speed and telekinesis, respectively. While the scepter is apprehended, Wanda, who also possesses the ability to create vividly nightmarish hallucinations, afflicts our very own Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) with an apocalyptic vision that serves as the catalyst for the Avengers' most crucial excursion to date.

Back at the Avengers home base, and utilizing artificial intelligence discovered inside the scepter's Infinity Stone, Stark, with assistance from Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), continues to covertly complete his new global defense system entitled "Ultron," Unfortunately, unexpectedly, and unbeknownst to Tony Stark--always as these things go in the Marvel universe--Ultron is a sentient being who emerges to full three dimensional life (as voiced and performed through motion capture technology by James Spader) with the intent to "evolve" the planet Earth through the annihilation of all human life.

Scaling the globe from Africa, to Seoul and a return to Sokovia for the literally sky-high and earth shattering climax, it is up to the Avengers to save the world once again. That is, if they do not fall apart in the process.

If Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" represented the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its highest peak, "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" comes pretty damn close. After 11 Marvel films (with "Ant-Man," the 12th, arriving this July) in a rapid seven years, there is now more than enough of a familiarity to the overall Marvel experience as all of the films essentially follow the same arc: heroes (either singular or within a group) battle against some force intent on world domination or destruction and emerge victorious only to face a greater threat next time. We have seen it all before and then some. But, what made "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" a special experience was the purely magic touch that Whedon has brought to the table.

As with the first film (and for me, above all of the other solo Marvel films), Joss Whedon somehow possesses this uncanny ability to render his filmmaking vision in such a tremendously and lovingly fluid fashion. From a visual standpoint, and especially with the massive amount of CGI special effects on display, he has proven himself to be one of the few filmmakers currently applying the technology with a sense of wonderment, inventiveness and with such a vibrant seamlessness that the film's many action sequences truly look and feel like the images that flew through my brain as I read the comic books featuring these very same superheroes so long ago.

Take the film's opening set piece as the heroes battle the forces of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Echoing one spectacular sequence from the first film, I absolutely loved how Whedon breathlessly follows the Avengers in full tilt, his camera resting upon one hero caught in the throes of the fight before panning over to a teammate involved within their own particular skirmish and then, panning to yet another and another Avenger combating and vanquishing one foe after another. For me, it is a terrific way to tone down the rampant ADD editing that has typically plagued most action films while discovering new and often exhilarating ways to present the stories contained within the fight sequences, all the while keeping us on the edges of our theater seats in the process.

But fancy cinematography and copious special effects would mean absolutely nothing without having a story to tell and having a team of fine actors to bring the material to life. As I stated within my assessment of the first film, it would have been so easy (and therefore, lazy) to allow Robert Downey Jr. to just walk off with the film, reducing everyone else within this large and increasing cast of characters to be nothing more than supporting players. Here is another area where Joss Whedon does not fall into the same traps as most filmmakers. Whedon realizes that if he is fortunate enough to have the cast that he has, then he needs to give each and every one of them something of value to do. Somehow, he has again discovered ways to deliver the material to his actors (and these world class superheroes) in spades.

As I ruminate over "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," I am still shaking my head in amazement with how Joss Whedon has been able to keep so many spinning plates in the air, from those aforementioned action sequences to the variety of characters upon display. I cannot express enough to you that what Whedon has achieved is no easy feat and is precisely the element that has undone many superhero films that have arrived before, most notably Director Bryan Singer's hugely disappointing "X-Men" (2000/2003) films (sorry not a fan at all), Director Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" (2007) and possibly the very bottom of the barrel, Director Joel Schumacher's horrendous "Batman And Robin" (1997). Unlike those films, in which the plethora of characters were just shuffled from one end of the screen to another willy nilly, Whedon assures that every single character has their specific moment to play within the fullness of their specific arc, regardless if the characters are major or supporting. For as much time that is devoted on the front-lines of the film to the likes of Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Hulk, and their respective story lines, the tapestry that Whedon weaves is that much richer by the inclusion of additional stories that occur on the fringes, for example, the bitter rivalry that exists between Quicksilver and the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and how that plays out over the course of the film.

Furthermore, with "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," it feels as if Whedon has slightly shifted Robert Downey Jr. from being the film's anchor and tilted it a bit more towards Chris Evans, who continues to impress in his reprisal of the ultimate "man out of time" Steve Rogers/Captain America. For that matter, Scarlett Johansson, grows even further into her role as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and so successfully that she undoubtedly makes a great case for her character to have her own damn movie! Lucratively, expanding the focus of Evans and Johansson's characters is of course, designed to set up not only "Captain America: Civil War" (arriving May 2016) plus "Avengers: Infinity War" parts 1 and 2 (arriving in 2018 and 2019). But to save the entire enterprise from solely existing as a soulless money grab, Whedon again proves himself to be a masterful storyteller who ensures all of the pieces fit together conceptually as this specialized brand of serialized films continues to increase.

If the first batch (oh, excuse me, Phase 1) of the Marvel films were all stepping stones to the first Avengers movie, then Phase 2, has been leading up to breaking the band apart. While The Avengers has been a tenuous team at best, all societal misfits or outcasts (mostly) blessed/cursed with superhuman abilities and simultaneously afflicted with all manner of psychological traumas merged with hefty clashing egos providing the ever present friction, Whedon utilizes this second film to bring the team to its breaking point, essentially having them save the world despite themselves. And here is where the richness of Whedon's writing comes into play.

For all of the cataclysm that encapsulates "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," Whedon always adheres to the overall humanity of the piece, the very thing that completely eluded Director Zack Snyder's pummeling "Man Of Steel" (2013), which was completely undone by its callous usage of constant carnage. Whedon knows that if those of us in the audience are to give a whit about anything that occurs in his film, he understands that what will move us are the motivations, and most importantly, the consequences of all of the characters' actions.

What else is "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" but an exploration of Tony Stark's bottomless hubris? While his inventive genius is relentless, Whedon utilizes this film as the unleashing of Stark's darkest impulses and fears, despite the purity of his intentions. Up until this point, Stark's demons have been largely internalized, from his fears of mortality in "Iron Man 2" (2010) to his PTSD combined with his increasing feelings of guilt and responsibility as depicted in "Iron Man 3" (2013). By the events of this new film, Tony Stark's demons have become more externalized as all of his inner struggles have boiled over into what could potentially become a self-fulfilled prophecy of the world's apocalypse, as enacted by Ultron.

Thankfully, the presence of Ultron made for a much more interesting and compelling villain than the bland mustache twirlers seen in "Thor: The Dark World" and especially in "Guardians Of The Galaxy." James Spader, an actor who I have always felt holds one of the best and most unique speaking voices in the movies, brings this attribute front and center and to an extremely impressive effect. Spader has been able to take what could have been standard dialogue about the world's destruction and has infused it with layers that twist and curl with the affectations of  his voice making the character of Ultron a figure that is simultaneously petulant, philosophical, and psychotic.

Again Whedon utilizes the character to dig even deeper as Ultron is essentially nothing more than an extension of Tony Stark himself--basically, Stark's darkest side. Additionally, the army of Stark's robots that Ultron eventually controls could also be viewed as representations of Tony Stark's ego run destructively amok forcing our hero to continuously fight variations of himself plus his legacy and his teammates are also forced to fight with and against him while dealing with their own anxieties that have also been unearthed throughout the course of the film,

The extended climax war sequence is truly notable not solely for the spectacle but also for the humanity Whedon has executed throughout. Defeating Ultron and the robots is paramount but not at the expense of the civilians (take that, "Man Of Steel"). Whole sub-sections of this sequence are focused not just on the fighting but the logistics in figuring out how to save innocent people from...well, themselves. I appreciated this approach (as well as another when Iron Man and Hulk duke it out in Africa, all the while trying to bring Hulk's rage away from innocent people) especially as I have grown so exhausted by the waves of CGI death and destruction that permeate these sorts of films. It was refreshing to actually make the consequences of their actions exist and work as crucial parts of the story itself and I would love to shake Whedon's hand for doing so.

But with all of the psychological drama and tormented superheroes running around,  will assure you that Marvel has not descended into Christopher Nolan territory. "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" remains a living comic book that delivers tremendous bang for your buck but does indeed appreciate giving audiences so much more to chew on. Joss Whedon is a filmmaker who feels is necessary to give us the time to devote to a longing romance between Hulk and Black Widow, which gave the film an honestly touching  "Beauty and The Beast" poignancy. Whedon felt is necessary to give the film many quiet sequences allowing us to get to know these characters in more personable fashion. I loved the back stories of Hawkeye, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, especially a sequence set in Hawkeye's tranquil life away from the front lines.

And yes, Whedon also finds many opportunities to infuse a relaxed, wise and sharply witty sense of humor throughout--I loved an early sequence where The Avengers, all in celebratory mode, each take a crack a attempting to lift Thor's Asgardian hammer, for example.

By the inclusion of these elements, what we have with "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" is a comic book film that is also about families, fractured or otherwise. From parents and children (Tony Stark and Ultron) to variations of siblings (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Black Widow, Stark and Bruce Banner, etc...), Whedon gives us families that love and hate, fight and renew, are pushed to their limits, implode and re-structure, all the while giving us characters that we can care about because they care about each other.

Even with all of this praise, I do think that it is a good thing to know when to walk away as Joss Whedon has announced during the film's press tour that this film will be his last for the Marvel franchise. Where the first film was so wondrously light on its feet, "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" contains a certain heaviness. Yes, it is appropriate for the story (or stories) that it is trying to tell but also because I think the strain of holding a gargantuan amount of characters and material aloft was indeed showing. Better to know when to quit than to stick around and make a messy movie. So, I bid the best of luck to Joe and Anthony Russo who have decided to take the reins for the next Captain America and Avengers films, fr if they are up to the challenge, then I think they can make those films soar highly.

But, how great it was to have had Joss Whedon for as long as we did as he has indeed helmed two of the finest films this genre has had to offer. Films of great excitement but also of great empathy, style and class. When it comes to making movies, to accomplish those feats is heroic to me!

Friday, May 1, 2015


After four months of cinematic wasteland, with barely anything of interest worth screening, we have now arrived.

May marks the official beginning of the Summer Movie Season and if all of the films that I have seen listed within Summer Movie Preview articles make their way to my fair city over these next four months, I am hoping the quantity and quality of the films released will more than make up for the quiet months during the early part of the year.

I already have my ticket for Writer/Director Joss Whedon's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," which I plan to see this weekend. But also upon my radar this month...

1. Writer/Director George Miller returns to the post-apocalyptic Australian wastelands with "Mad Max: Fury Road," with Tom Hardy taking over the titular role from Mel Gibson in what already looks to be a violently extravagant ride.

2. Jack Black stars in "The D Train," an independent comedy/drama concerning a high school reunion has already piqued my interest.

3. While I have not been terribly impressed with early trailers that I have seen, I am indeed interested in the new fantasy escapade "Tomorrowland" solely due to the direction of Brad Bird.

4. There has also been some buzz surrounding the dark comedy "Welcome To Me" starring Kristen Wiig that has caught my attention and if it makes its arrival, hopefully I can catch that one.

5. Finally, at the end of the month, one of my cinematic and writing heroes makes his return after a four year absence. Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's latest romantic comedy, the long gestating Hawaiian odyssey "Aloha," will, at long last, be released after being pushed from a Christmas 2014 release. While this sort of a move tends to not be the best sign, I hope that Crowe can make my heart smile once again.

Now, that is a packed schedule and I hope that I am able to keep up with them all. So, as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!