Darke Reviews – Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

So I did the math on the way home. Took the day off and spent the better part of it at the theatre. Granted I slept til 1:30 then headed over, but yeesh. Was it worth it though? Double Feature of Avengers and then Age of Ultron, discounts on food and drink. Conversation with another movie geek on the comics, animated movies, and general geektitude. Yep all of it was worth it. It was weird hearing people in the audience who hadn’t seen Avengers first and odd to note things that raised questions in the first Avengers in light of Winter Soldier. But…did Age of Ultron live up to the hype?

Let’s be honest folks – you are going to see it anyway regardless of this review. This easily falls into the #seeitanyway category. Let me see if I can keep to my usual spoiler free territory.

Written and directed by geek god Joss Whedon, the film picks up an indeterminate amount of time after the events of all the previous films. It starts mid-stride with the Avengers continuing to try to find Loki’s staff in the wake of the events of Avengers. It’s clear they’ve worked together awhile on various missions enough so that they have clear roles and methods in how they work with each others powers, or lack there of. A new threat of their own making rises in the form of Ultron. An AI with a goal and the Avengers must overcome their internal issues and external ones to win the day, will they?

Lets talk the cast a moment. Our favorites return in the roles that we love them for. Chris Evans is once again on point as Captain America, he still has his ghosts, but as Dr. Irskin asked of him – be a good man. RDJ of course returns as Iron Man with no real acknowledgement of the events of Iron Man 3 one way or the other. I think we are better for that. He was made to play Tony Stark, but it is clear that he is both comfortable and tired of the role. Mark Ruffalo is given significantly more time as Bruce Banner and is allowed to show more than he did in the previous film. I still believe he is a secretly genius casting and he does well with what he is given. Chris Hemsworth takes Thor out for his 4th outing and doesn’t do much new or at all I suppose. ScarJo gets her own 4th showing as Black Widow, the assassin and spy, and is actually given more depth this time with the barest glimpse into her background.  Jeremy Renners complaints were clearly heard after the last movie and has a lot more time as Hawkeye with some significant divergence from his comic roots. They don’t hurt, but they are surprising. Samuel L Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders all become proof positive that the writer and producers heard the complaints about Iron Man 3 and went ‘oh yeah, all of these guys exists and you know should be here…even briefly’. Sadly we get no Paltrow or Portman as Pepper and Jane; which we do hear some snark about in film – it’s nice. Of course we also have the introduction of Aaron Taylor Johnson (Kick Ass, Godzilla) as Pietro Maximoff, who can’t be called Quicksilver due to rights issues, and his twin sister Wanda Maximoff, more commonly known as the Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen (Godzilla, Old Boy). Ultron is gifted with the voice of our favorite man in a fedora from Blacklist, James Spader. I swear this man could read a phone book and make it sound delicious.

Whew….was that too busy?

That there is the movies problem. It’s taken me twenty minutes to think about this and a good twenty minutes talking with my partner in crime this evening. The problem here is the film is too busy. Too big. We aren’t given a chance to breathe, save one scene. The scene we are ostensibly supposed to be able to revel in the quiet, is just too tense to enjoy the moment. It’s off putting rather than relaxing. The tension was ramped up and kept at a certain level that left you bordering on uncomfortable. It all was too much. Too many locations, too many fights, too many cuts. Too busy.

Things that need explanation are left painfully vague or explained too quick to sink in. There is expectation you have seen everything to this point and if you haven’t you may scratch your head at a few scenes. It’s clear there are significant cuts and edits to the film as well as a few scenes from the trailer are noticeably missing. I think Joss stumbled on this one, it’s not a failure, but it is a clear stumble. He wrote himself into corners he didn’t know how to write himself out of elegantly or cleanly. When he did give himself a needed out, the outs came off awkward. While I am rarely one to encourage films to be split into two, I think there was enough material here that this could have or should have been. It wasn’t in the plan so it couldn’t be and the narrative pays for it. I feel, I believe the studio interfered more this time as well. Joss is far from perfect, but there’s just something wrong about the entire picture on a level I can’t quite put my finger on. It is almost as if they were trying to capture the same lightning in a bottle they had with the first Avengers and didn’t quite stick the landing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve overly expounded on the problems here, but the movie is still solid. You will continue to love and hate the characters as appropriate. The fight sequences are solid in their own right. The movie properly zooms into comic book physics without batting an eye and we are ok with all of this. The movie still has humor in the right places and darkness in the others. The famous Hammer and party sequence are everything I hoped they would be. Spaders voice work and mo cap of Ultron is in a word incredible. The man’s presence can be felt even if he himself is not on screen.

TL;DR

The movie lands solidly in the better than average to as low as the “it’s ok” realm. I might (probably) watch it again to see if my opinions on it shift the needle in either direction. This is still likely to be one of the biggest movies of the year, though Furious Seven has set a benchmark that will make it hard for other films to hit. This one, probably will though – and deserves to. The movie **is** good, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t quite as good as the last Avengers and doesn’t quite have the same magic.

If you were going to see it – see it! You’d ignore the review or not want to read it anyway (despite me being spoiler free when possible)

If you were on the fence – eh…see it Matinee.

If you were curious – I’d ask what rock you’ve been living under and why you haven’t seen the others. You definitely don’t want to start on this however, and you’d likely feel lost as there’s enough history required for this one to not make this a first timers film.

 

Coming Soon

Review season has begun, I get the next week off after that. Mad Max and Pitch Perfect in the same weekend – thankfully not vying for the same audiences. Tomorrowland follows with San Andreas the week after (though that review will be late due to Phoenix Comicon). The rest of summer after that looks to be hit and miss. Here’s hoping folks.

Sunday, you might get a special throwback review…Big Trouble In Little China has a screening at one of my local theatres.

Darke Reviews – Ex Machina (2015)

This is a little known, but often lauded film, I have been waiting for. In multiple previous reviews I have slammed the films for having a fear of science and more importantly a fear of AI. Transcendence is one the more recent criminals in this vein. I have a near unique perspective where I am just as eager to look at and love the past as I am the future. I am not afraid of science.  I am not afraid of any advances and point in fact I resent those that hold us back from even more. Too many sci fi movies these days seem to be based on a fear response rather than hope or driving us to better ourselves, our world, and our technology.

So please pardon me if I wax a bit philosophical as I write this review, the movie asks some very important questions in the right ways.

Let’s switch things up a bit and get into the acting, this film runs on a minimal cast. While not as small as say Moon, for the better part of the film there are 3 main actors who must do all the work; those being Oscar Isaac as Nathan, Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, and Alicia Vikander as Ava. Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Robin Hood, Drive and soon to be in Age of Apocalypse) plays scientific genius Nathan the man with a compound in a remote area of either Canada or Norway. I appreciate his take on the eccentric billionaire. There’s something roguish and even brutish about his performance yet with a calculating intelligence that drives him and his protege Caleb forward. It is a surprisingly detestable character yet he captures your attention much in the way Tony Stark does. Gleeson (Bill Weasley from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows) is nearly the opposite. For all the extrovert force that Nathan is, Gleeson’s performance as Caleb is almost wall flowerish. It is a well controlled and constructed performance that allows you to buy into his decision making and approach through the film His body language is on point during his Turing test conversations with Ava. Vikander (Seventh Son, Anna Karenina, Man from UNCLE), may have the hardest performance. Where the boys must be equally demanding of the camera during their shots both energetic and quiet; Vikander’s Ava must capture the camera and your attention with something else. Every motion she makes must look as if she is a machine pretending to be human but so human she passes. This is more difficult than it sounds yet she achieves it in her own body language. Her face alone is allowed full expression yet her body tells you as much in how she moves and positions herself. It’s really quite remarkable.

The technical prowess in which the actors performed must get some credit from the writer and director Alex Garland. Garland, who previously gave us the genre redefining 28 Days Later, the lack luster Sunshine, and criminally underrated Dredd, is in top form here. It’s clear the man knows how to shoot a film and get a performance from his cast. The three films I mentioned are clearly watching a man come to understand his gifts behind the camera and with a crew with each one building on the successes and failures of the other. That leaves us with Ex Machina. Nothing is wasted in the film. Not a single shot is without some level of purpose be it literal or metaphorical. Every camera angle is where it should be for maximum effect. It truly is a technically amazing film from a cinematic point of view. While I know there is much that was in the can that hit the editing room floor, as there is with any film, we are given the purest essence of film making. Music, Light, Shadow, Color, Negatives, all interplay perfectly.

Before I talk story and the questions, I do need to say as good as the movie is – it still falls into some traps that I found displeasing. The character of Nathan, while breaking many stereotypes, hits enough of the wrong ones to bother. While the movie does not directly objectify the female cast members there is an overabundance of shots that made me think someone from Game of Thrones was involved. Obviously I have no issue with the female form, as I am in the process of giving myself one, but there’s just something off putting in the delivery here. It is largely clinical if you narrow your eyes at the movie, but a moments though and it becomes uncomfortable again. This is probably the one major flaw of the film. It’s enough of a flaw that if you genderswap any of the characters the film likely may not be made or retain the rating it did under the iron thumb of the MPAA; which is an entirely different problem in how American’s view film, much less those psychotics over at the MPAA.

From a story stand point, Nathan hires Caleb to be a living Turing Test for Ava. For those who don’t know, (though the movie explains), the Turing Test is a method in which a human tests a computerized system to determine if they can tell they are working with a computer. This is normally done as something blind, but the nature of this experiment requires it not to be. Caleb is flown in and brought to a massive remote compound and meets Ava, a fully functional AI. She deliberately looks like a machine in order to see if she can make Caleb (and the audience) forget that fact.

There are so many good questions the movie asks and it spends just a little less time on the topic than I am happy with. This is a minor flaw, as the movie delves into the philosophical topics around AI and Robotics, but doesn’t commit to them lest it lose the audience entirely. I fear that is the issue, the risk of boring the wider audience with a certain amount of techo-babble and philosophy. What it does ask creates powerful questions that we ourselves can look at and have conversations about? Questions about Gender and Sexuality; though the movie does mostly classify under the binary format, the larger conversation could be had. Questions about wants, needs, loves, lies that we tell each other and ourselves. Most importantly the movie asks us if we are human, can we truly define that? Can we define what separates us from a truly advanced AI or what really would pass the Turing Test? The movie wisely and thankfully doesn’t make us fear AI save a throw away line of evolutionary/revolutionary theory, but embraces that it is an inevitable future and what that could mean. This had me excited as the trailers kept their word. here. The trailers however, sell the movie short giving it a horror vibe or perhaps a bit of a sexual objectification vibe. I could go on for hours about the conversations that could be had from watching this film and delving deeper into the questions it literally and metaphorically asks.

TL;DR

This movie is not for everyone. I would love to give the Darke Seal of Approval (I need a seal of approval first) and that everyone should see it, but I can’t.

There is no action here, this truly is a thinking persons film. IF you want to grab a drink and chat with friends in the spring night air after seeing the movie – this is a good film for you. It is both visually stunning and mentally stimulating. For my SciFi, Philosophy, and Psychology lovers, you really need to see this film.

All others, I couldn’t say you would enjoy it. You might and if this review has made you the least bit curious then I say find a matinee and see it; otherwise give it a pass.

The movie satisfied me greatly in that it doesn’t fear AI and the scientific advances that come from it. It deserves to be a critical darling if not a box office one. There is a lot of subtlety and nuance in the film and I hope you feel the same.

 

 

 

Darke Reviews – Furious 7 (2015)

Furious 7.  As I have said in previous reviews when you are this invested in a franchise it is already a forgone conclusion that you are seeing this film. So how do I review it? Do I review it? Well of course I do. It’s worth mentioning as I open this that there was a clip in the pre movie commercials of Vin Diesel being asked if he thinks this is the best of the franchise. His response brought a tear to my eye.

“Whenever we went to a movie premier, I would turn to Paul and ask was it the best? He would look to me and tell me the best is still in the can. I am hoping to hear from him, somehow that he thinks this one is the best.” These men were brothers in real life as much as they were in the films. Even Paul’s mother knew it and is quoted by Diesel as saying “I thought they needed my strength but realized when I got there and broke down before his family, that it was I who needed theirs.”His mother hugged me and said I am so sorry … I said sorry? You’re the mother who lost a son? … She said yes, but you lost your other half.”

So how was the movie?

The writer on the franchise since Tokyo Drift , Chris Morgan, returns to give us what will likely be the last of the series. If Fast 5 was a love letter to Oceans 11 with cars and Furious 6 was a love letter to shark jumping everywhere, then this film is the love letter to Mission Impossible, while it jumps a shark with friggin lasers on their heads. It is gloriously over the top and embraces it with a smile and a Corona. The natural charm and chemistry of the returning cast members makes every ridiculous scene work. Morgan is also wise enough to give us slow moments where the characters can interact and show why we have stuck with them for the six previous movies. It’s not just long looks, but comes down to the performances and delivery which means Morgan needs some help from the cast

I won’t go too long here. Vin Diesel returns as Dominic Toretto who continues to stubborn and street prophet his way through the movies. Walker’s role is probably more reduced than originally intended, but the moments he gets with Mia (Jordana Brewster) sell every single time. Michelle Rodriguez continues as Letty and is both beautiful and one of the baddest women we have on screen. The meme of keep your pop icons, we have our own should equally apply to this woman. Tyrese keeps earning that paycheck as CinemaSins says and sadly continues to be the weakest part of the family. Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges is once again epic as Tej and a highlight for the film. Dwayne Johnson was born to be in this franchise and clearly has a blast with every single scene chewing line.

Joining this film is Statham as Lee Christmas, er the Driver, er …Deckard Shaw. Oh heck with it. Jason Statham is Jason Statham. Djimon Hounsou comes in as a secondary villain along with Tony Jaa and a brief but wicked appearance of Ronda Rousey. Kurt Russell makes his own appearance as Nobody taking a page from the Rock and looking to chew scenery. In my private fiction I think he was secretly Jack Burton 20 years later. Our movies McGuffin is a person this time, Nathalie Emmanuel, better known as Missandei from Game of Thrones. It was nice to hear her in her own speaking voice rather than her clipped precise tones from the show.

James Wan, best known for Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious is replacing Justin Lin at the helm. I think that might be where the seams begin to show. He just doesn’t have what Lin did. This isn’t to say he was horrible, but he isn’t as gifted with the camera or ensemble as Lin. There’s some weird camera tricks used that detract from the film and there just is not enough love for certain characters that I think comes down to the director more than anything else. Granted, he still directed the heck out of the film while the shark continued to do it’s double half back flip with a triple twist. He does run this far more as an over the top Mission Impossible action film than a car movie, but that comes across as an observation than a complaint.

From the technicals CG is CG. Physics is bound, gagged, slapped around, and hung up in an oubliette – and we don’t care! Seriously we don’t. You shouldn’t. The movie is absolutely ridiculous and makes no sense from a biologic, architectural, or engineering standpoint. Gravity? HA! Injuries? Don’t make me laugh. Actually the movie did more than a few times and I was thankful for it.

TL;DR?

The final film in the Fast franchise is so beautifully over the top any flaws it has, which there are a few, don’t seem to matter. This is one of the first movies this year I can feel comfortable saying “Go See it

– If you are invested already – you didn’t need my review.

– If you weren’t invested – you also didn’t need it. You weren’t going to see it anyway. Seeing it before the others is a disservice to the series.

The movie is good. It is beefcake. It is cheesecake. It is ridiculous and I love it for all of it. 14 years of these movies and the series can rest now. It earned it and got a good send off.

 

PS

Rollover spoiler –

I did cry at the end from the reshoots they added to address Paul Walkers death. Diesels send off for him was as much to the character of Brian as it was to Paul himself. It was moving and heartfelt. I am not sure what the original ending was, nor does it matter. This was good and I am glad they did it the way they did.

– end spoiler