Friday, May 22, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

  Despite having seen this before I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, (which I just saw earlier this week) I didn't feel the urge to write a review on it right away. It was lots of fun, and it does justice to the 'shut-off-your-brain' genre of summer blockbusters. People who are already tired of Marvel's efforts won't find anything new to enjoy here, and lasting fans will really enjoy it. Age of Ultron is yet another pleasantly watchable chapter in Marvel's big franchise universe. It's full of hints and 'easter eggs' carefully placed for astute fans to find and starts rumors about. As an action movie, it's fun. As an ensemble movie, it's well balanced. As a Marvel movie, it's about what you'd expect. When it all comes down to it, it's just a really big talent show.

  These ensemble movies are beat by beat showcases. They're expected to have certain things happen, and under a certain tone no less- and Age of Ultron is as good as they're going to get for what they are. I firmly believe that if you don't like them, then you want them to be something they're not supposed to be. Ergo, these movies simply aren't for you. And I can respect that. This is simplicity at it's finest. Basic good vs. evil against a backdrop of modern technology and cautionary tales of every sort. It's like the second coming of 80's action movies. Except, mired in kid-gloved politics and encumbered by light-touch world issues.

  Nevertheless, you have your heroes, and you have a reason to root for them. Emotional interludes are doled out in equal measure with exposition just so we can still feel something for our protagonists when stuff starts blowing up. That's all these movies really are. And what's more is... I'm okay with that. So long as we can have a secondary line of properties like Daredevil. Which is still the best thing out of Marvel so far because by the very nature of it's format, it's enabled to deal with characters and emotions in a way the movies aren't. I can see Marvel running out of rope unless they wise up a bit and flesh out this universe even more with more weighty content like Daredevil.

   However Age of Ultron is exactly what I hoped it would be and I had a great time. I'm sure the plot has been rehashed on every single blog from here to kingdom come, so I'll skip that for now. It's fairly obvious they're setting up a second team. It'll probably be led by Ant-Man, and under him will be The Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Falcon, War Machine, and/or the Black Panther. I'm not sure how Dr.Strange will fit into all that, but hey, there's a lot of rope left still. Marvel has the next decade of movies planned out. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, it's a great time to be a nerd.

  I can't argue with that. Age of Ultron isn't perfect, and like the Iron Man sequels, I largely suspect that it'll get better with re-watches. Hell, most of these movies get better with a few re-watches. I think that's their strength: their watchability. They're simple, carefree, Saturday matinee fare that take light jabs at serious topics. On one hand, that frustrates me. They are still managing these movies to appeal to the biggest audience possible. Which means things like the 'Demon in a Bottle' storyline from the Iron Man comics that dealt with Tony Stark's alcoholism get quietly mothballed because they're deemed un-family friendly.

  Is that sort of approach really thinking about the comic fans who've been fans of this stuff all along or is that just thinking about the long term profit margin? Did Chris Nolan hold back with The Dark Knight? Not at all. Whether or not you still think that's a good Batman movie is up to you, but it wasn't kid's play. As opposed to Iron Man 2... Now, granted, Captain America: The Winter Soldier felt very grown up and instead of toying with world issues and modern problems, it made those things the fundamentals of the movie. I can safely say The Winter Soldier stands head and shoulders above most of the Marvel movies right now, but Age of Ultron is up there. Not quite on par, yet not a full step back either.

  There's some scary good acting from all those involved, some fantastic action scenes, and some memorable one liners. Again, it suffers from the 'setting up the next one' thing that Iron Man 2 did, but that's alright. There's a ton of familiar faces, a few new ones and it all works out okay in the end. Paul Bettany is fantastic as The Vision. Easily a massive highlight of the movie. In fact, he's probably my favorite part of it. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson both do really well as Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) respectively, but rather than the main characters I felt they should've been, they're relegated to background roles basically. Until the climax of course.

  Hawkeye is given a better role overall this time around and for once he feels like he has a unique personality all to himself. Ultron himself is scary, and surprisingly witty. Loved him. James Spader did a great job with the voice and the motion capture. All that aside though, there's some odd stuff like Banner and Romanov having a romantic vibe, Thor's character development being relegated entirely to foreshadowing for future films, Tony Stark's character arc from Iron Man 3 being all but ignored, and the Avengers themselves are all teamed up again in the beginning of the movie, and from the sound of it- have been doing their thing together for a while recently. I dunno what was up with all that, some of it is out of left field, some of it ignores continuity (that I'm aware of), but nonetheless...

  The movie is fun. It's exciting, it's funny, it's a big action packed spectacle. I think that's all anybody really wants from it. I was left feeling like I spent my money well and that I had a good time. I didn't feel the 'someone pinch me is this really real?' feeling I had, walking breathless and smiling out of the first Avenger's movie, but I reiterate, again, I had fun. Which is more than I can say for a lot of modern blockbusters.  Marvel has yet to drop below the standards set by their previous films, and I think we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that these movies aren't being made by studios that don't care in the slightest. Age of Ultron did not disappoint. It's second only to Mad Max this summer (haven't seen Furious Seven yet) as essential-ish viewing.

Much like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Age of Ultron is another big, loud, fun, sci-fi superhero romp with the right combination of elements to keep Saturday matinees alive and well. We need more of those.

Mad Max: Fury Road

  It's a rare thing in this day and age to see a movie so unconcerned with the ever-popular franchise mentality that it can serve as a sequel, reboot, and re-imagining all in one. It doesn't need the Mel Gibson movies to function, it truly is it's own machine. Of course, if you're already a fan, you'll find even more to appreciate- but it's not necessary. In fact, given how the Mad Max movies evolve so drastically with each sequel, I suppose it should surprise no one that Fury Road continues that trend. It takes the feeling you get during the action scenes of The Road Warrior, and makes that last for a full two hours. Buckle up.

  I knew this movie was crazy. Word of mouth from friends, friends of friends, and critics I trust all told me that this movie was insane. I thought I knew what I was in for, but I was unprepared. I made the mistake of going to see this movie after a long hard day at work. I was tired, and ready to unwind with a fun movie. While the movie is definitely fun, it's also not a movie that lets you relax. Ever.  It aggressively etches it's name into the pantheon of great car chase movies with copious amounts of blood, sweat, and burning chrome. It's truly a non-stop thrill ride. It's not just a fast paced movie, it only has one setting: go.

  Even in the few brief quiet moments we get as a reprieve from the chaos, things are still in motion. Quite literally. Once the characters get on their way, the movie doesn't stop and neither do they. At least not until a very specific point towards the end. Speaking of the characters though, they are incredibly vibrant and alive, but they're also incredibly basic. They have the kind of clear cut motivation that fueled most if not all 80's action movies. Max himself is played with a simple yet gruff intensity by Tom Hardy. The character is actually an outsider in his own movie. (Kinda just like in The Road Warrior) He's just a catalyst because we already know his story. So despite this being a full-on, balls-to-bone, Mad Max movie, he's simply the vehicle upon which another story is being told.

  Of course, he still the main character and has important choices to make, weighing survival and self-preservation against things like morals and his own humanity. He ends up helping a group of concubines who have escaped from the power-mad overlord, Immortan Joe, on their journey to 'the green place'. Lots of people have called the movie 'feminist', and while I'm certainly fine with it being labeled that- I don't think it's anything wholly unusual. It's just a really engaging story. A group of strong women fighting for their freedom from a sexist and evil oppressor is just damn good cinema.

  I can produce a list of movies with similar themes as long as my arm, the difference is Fury Road is just made better. It's not made on the cheap, and it's not beholden to some niche DTV nudity-laden sub-genre of yesteryear. Charlize Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, one of Immortan Joe's lieutenants who betrays him, helping the women escape. She earns her place alongside famous film heroines like Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia, and Sarah Connor. She's an emotional character with guts and a really cool look to her. I've heard rumors that more Mad Max movies might be on the way, and if they are, I sincerely hope she's a part of them. She's great.

  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Nicholas Hoult's fantastic performance as Nux, a crazy foot soldier of Immortan Joe's who ends up becoming as essential to the story as Max himself. The details of when and how are incredibly clever, and I won't give away anything more about it because I hope you go see the movie yourself. The whole cast is fantastic and the costume design is beyond cool. All of it gels together to really create villains you despise and heroes you grow to love. I know I'm forgetting to mention a few key actors, but everyone brought their A-game. It was all great.

  But really, without a doubt the star of the movie is the action. There's no argument about it, the action scenes are mind-blowingly creative and insane. It's hard to believe that CGI was only used sparingly, but at the same time it's obvious. Things hit with an explosive punch that makes it feel all that much more real. Each action scene has as many human elements as a car has mechanical. There's always at least several dozen cars blazing across the screen with people being launched through the air and all kinds of vehicular combat on display. It was almost overwhelming. But somehow series mainstay, director George Miller manages to craft an order out of the chaos and carnage. It's elegant in it's complexity, and thankfully we're never left in the dust- so to speak.

  The movie is probably the most basic, simple, straightforward movie you'll see all year. It's more about themes and emotions than it is about story and plot. It doesn't need that much.  If you're lost in the who's-this and who's-that of the latest comic book extravaganza, Fury Road is the antidote. It does so much more, with so much less- and still manages to bring to life a unique and visually stunning world. It's designs are so interesting and eye-catching that I wished we could've spent even more time there just touring some of the places in the movie.

  From Immortan Joe's gargantuan hideout in the side of a mountain, to a strange and eerie swampland with it's creepy stilt-walking inhabitants- there's always an interesting setting or set-piece in the movie to keep you that much more engaged. The visuals, the designs, and the choreography are all top notch, to say nothing of the direction, the acting, and the writing. It's all aces. I only have two gripes, I wish the movie was longer, that it had more build-up and that we got more dialog from Max himself. Those are personal gripes though, I don't necessarily believe them to be flaws of the movie itself, which functions exceptionally well as is. It is a lean, mean, fuel-injected thrill machine that lives up to every ounce of potential it has. I can safely consider it essential summer viewing.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Discussing the Trek

  I've recently been re-watching a lot of Star Trek, the original movies, the new movies, and some of the shows as well. The one thing that I've noticed though, browsing internet forums and message boards, is that there is a huge majority of new Trek fans who swear by the Abrams movies, and can't understand why Trek fans who grew up on the originals, dislike the new ones. Now, granted there is no one singular type of fan. There are fans who love all the Trek movies, and then there are fans who subscribe to the 'even-numbered' nonsense. So, I'm not addressing Trekkies (or Trekkers) in general, I simply mean to explain why longtime Trek fans ended up so massively disappointed in Star Trek Into Darkness. Or at least how I see it.

  The nature of Star Trek was always about discovery, exploration, and adventure. Wide-eyed wonder and the mystery of the unknown. In execution, it was about marrying high concept science fiction with allegories relevant to the world and society as it is. It was a a trendsetting property from the outset. Having a culturally and racially diverse crew on TV in a time when that was anything but acceptable. It showed a vision of the future that more and more people were willing to get behind. In Star Trek, as a race, humanity had evolved past petty in-fighting and the need for material gain. Collectively, we focused our efforts on exploration, and bettering ourselves as a species.

  The movies, even on their worst day, usually had something to say. The Motion Picture was a high concept sci-fi adventure, devoid of a cliche power-mad antagonist. It pitted the crew of the Enterprise against a massive space faring cloud-like entity on a destructive search for it's own maker. Even when the plots for these movies did focus around a central antagonist like Khan, or Commander Kruge, the movies had moral and emotional points to them. In The Wrath of Khan, it showed the danger of wielding god-like power, and how that should never be in anyone's hands.

  The Search for Spock, despite being an entry simply revolving around bringing back a fan favorite character, was a great companion piece to Wrath, and furthered the point that dangerous power like that ruins everything. It also had something to say about loyalty, and friendship. Bonds that transcend things like rules and regulations. The trend didn't stop there either. The Voyage Home was a massive (albeit heavy-handed) PSA about how we're destroying our own planet and should take better care of it and the creatures that live on it. The Final Frontier was a discussion about belief and an individual's concept of god. The Undiscovered Country was about racism, and letting go of antiquated notions that lead to hate and killing. It preached peace and understanding.

  And that was just the first six. After Kirk and crew hung up their uniforms, Captain Picard and his crew took over the silver screen adventures from that point on. I could fill up another article talking about those, but the point is, the best Treks had a message or two. They made you think long after the credits rolled. They were always more intellectual than their competition in franchises like Star Wars. Even on a basic action level, Star Trek was modeled after a naval-like concept of a space faring military. Star Trek was submarine warfare when it came to the action scenes. It would always boil down to a strategic battle of wits and calculation. Sonar readings, torpedoes, and the like. Star Wars on the other hand modeled itself more after the whiz-bang speed of WWI dogfights. Soaring fighter planes shooting at each other full blast, zipping past each other at speeds that would make your head spin.

  Star Wars gave audiences a very difference pace. Beyond the energetic trendsetting pacing, it was a classical fairy tale with futuristic sci-fi trappings. Knights who wielded swords made of light and energy, blasters instead of crossbows, and in addition to all of that, it still revolved around rescuing a princess with the help of an old wizard in their quest to overthrow an evil emperor. Star Trek didn't subscribe to such basic themes, it was a much more political, timely, and complex property (not always, but it tried). Keep in mind, I'm not saying one is better than the other, I'm simply highlighting the difference between the two properties because it's about to get real relevant.

  When the Trek movies stalled out after Nemesis, it was deemed ripe for a reboot. Enter, 2009's Star Trek. Directed by J.J.Abrams. Their first order of business was to figure our why nobody wanted a Star Trek movie anymore. So they looked to Star Wars, and by their own admission aimed to emulate the tone and pacing of that property instead. Rather than going back to see what made the best Trek movies so successful, they abandoned that idea altogether and deemed Star Trek simply needed to be faster and more energetic. Guys, that was never it's problem. It never needed the pacing of Star Wars because it was so different in concept. So here it is, in their efforts to make Star Trek more appealing, they misdiagnosed the problem. They avoided giving the movies any moral message deeper than "revenge is bad" and "war is bad", which was the downfall of Star Trek: Nemesis to begin with.

  J.J. and co. got lucky with their first entry though. It served as a decent introduction to characters we know and love, brought to life with care and gusto by a near perfect cast. It was the passing of a torch from the original generation, to a new one. Despite being paper thin, it worked. Mostly. It was a foot in the door that got people's attention, made a legion of new fans, and had everyone focused on what was going to happen next. Namely... Star Trek: Into Darkness. Instead of expanding their scope, bringing back the notions of exploration and moral-political issues, they rehashed the most basic elements from The Wrath of Khan, and gave fans a bunch of stuff they adamantly did not want.

  We got a re-imagined Khan, who is nothing like the actual Khan character. He was dropped into this Trek movie with the grace of a bull in a china shop, and his inclusion was strange at best. There's a big reveal moment in the movie where Khan reveals that his name is not John Harrison, his name is in fact, Khan. Kirk doesn't know who that is. Neither does Spock. Why? Because they've never encountered him before. And neither has a lot of the new fans. In the Wrath of Khan, the story was essentially a sequel to an episode of the Original Series called Space Seed, which was Khan's original introduction. There's none of that in Into Darkness. It's clumsy. It doesn't work for new fans, or longtime fans.

  If that wasn't enough, the story, the plot, it's all exceptionally basic stuff. It's an elementary school level anti-war PSA. The last act revolves around repeating an emotional beat from the end of The Wrath of Khan, but with none of the surprise or originality. It was a manipulative scene at best that did no favors for the movie as a whole. It was fan-service that the fans didn't want. I heard audible groans coming from the knowing fans in the crowd when I saw the movie in the theater. It didn't feel right. Worse still, it didn't have the lasting impact that Wrath of Khan did. Within minutes, this shocking event was resolved and the movie ended a-ok.

  Star Trek Into Darkness also abandoned the spirit of Star Trek itself. In imitating the Wrath of Khan, they restricted themselves to familiar locations, familiar villains, and a familiar plot. There's nothing new in Into Darkness, and isn't the whole point of a reboot to show the fans something fresh and new? The entirety of the movie takes place been the Klingon homeworld, and Earth. That's it. Even the worst of the original movies made an effort to show us 'strange new worlds' and 'new lifeforms and civilizations'. The same stuff that they promised to show us with the trademark speech at the end of 2009's Star Trek. They seriously didn't deliver. With the entire galaxy out there, ripe for exploration, the much awaited sequel was reduced to a simple action movie of the most basic sort with no respect for what Trek was originally all about.

  But enough people got swept away by the energetic pacing and non-stop action scenes that they ended up loving Into Darkness, and were curious as to why Trekkies (or Trekkers) were moaning and bitching. This still leads to heated and juvenile internet arguments that devolves into name calling. One side is calling the other side "Retards!" and the other side is retorting with "Pagh DaSov toDSaH!" I'll let you figure out which fanbase is which. In short, there's nothing wrong with liking simple, basic action adventure. I love that stuff. But everything has it's place, and Star Trek was a property that was fundamentally built on creativity and the wonder of discovery. The new movies aren't anything like that. So for longtime fans of the franchise, these movies are quick to make a horrible impression. On an even more basic level, as movie goers shouldn't we start insisting on a little originality and creativity in our movies again? Even if they're launched from a familiar franchise, lets see something new. Let's see something we haven't seen before. Isn't that the whole point of fiction and movies in general? That also happens to be the founding concept of Star Trek.

  Hopefully, now you understand- from a Trekkie's point of view. (or Trekker. whichever.)
Live long... and may the force be with you.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Judge Dredd: The Brutal Beta Cut

  And now for something a bit... different. I've been trying my hand at creating fan edits of movies I feel could use some serious tweaking. Previously I gave Superman: The Movie a thorough once over, and was exceptionally happy with the end result. Most recently, I applied my editing skills to 1995's Judge Dredd. It was a long and odd process and the flaws of the movie stuck out more than ever to me, but editing out the bullshit was nothing if not cathartic. A childhood favorite had evolved into a painfully guilty pleasure over the years, and I was seeking to remove a bit of that pain and guilt from watching this silly 90's action adventure.

  Following a round of self-promotion...

  I realized there was no way I could give my fanedit an objective review. I was far too smitten with my own handiwork. So instead, I turned to my friends and followers. Reviews came trickling in slowly but surely.

"-great work-"

“I enjoyed this recut immensely-” “feels much more like an action movie.”

But of course, I knew my good friend over at Movie Curiosities would be the one to give it a full review, and it's a damn good review at that! Check out his full review here, and if you'd like to see the Brutal Beta cut for yourself, you can inquire about it here, or via e-mail. I can be reached at:
Carry on citizens!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Rawhead Rex

  There's a certain charm to Rawhead Rex. It might not be the most iconic 80's monster movie, but its potential, fulfilled or not, shines through its shortcomings and makes it unique. The eponymous monster of the movie, Rawhead Rex, is the kind of creature that most low budget horror flicks wish they had on hand. He's not the most well put together, but holy crap he's got insane on screen presence. Whenever he showed up, I got extremely tense. Rawhead has the kind of balls-to-the-wall design that works so well. The biggest muscles, the biggest, sharpest teeth, and big glowing red eyes. He's the kind of monster that would show up in a little kid's nightmare. Sometimes, those are the scariest.

  He's some kind of... vengeful prehistoric god, predating Christianity, and he got buried alive I guess. Anyways, this farmer kinda ruins everything for everyone when he knocks over this annoying pillar of stone on his property, unleashing Rawhead himself- who promptly starts up a killing spree. Oh, and the whole movie takes place in rural Scotland, if I remember correctly. It's so odd, from concept to execution, but it sticks with you. This local church and it's stained glass windows plays a part in the story as well, being the key to figuring out how to stop Rawhead. It's another unique beat in this movie that feels like despite it's rural setting, and average guy protagonist, it needs some heavy metal on it's soundtrack.

  Rawhead just... looks like he came straight out of some album art for an 80's heavy metal band. I love it. Anyway, the movie wastes no time getting started, but doesn't keep a steady pace all that well. There's long interludes of basic stuff that clog up the movie. See, Rawhead is so larger than life that he makes silver screen slashers like Jason and Michael look like creepy ex boyfriends. Rawhead doesn't sneak around. He could benchpress a VW beetle for kicks and then go terrorize a whole trailer court of people. Which he actually does at one point. He's loud, ultra-strong, and unfettered by the need to creep and stalk. He seems to power walk everywhere and then just annihilate everything in his path. Except... for when he doesn't.

  The movie's downtime clashes with the nature of the monster. Being around our protagonists is almost painful because we know while we watch this Dad and his family tour rural Scotland and take pictures of churches, Rawhead is probably tearing the heads off a herd of sheep or ripping a farmer in half somewhere. Only we're not seeing him do that. I'm not saying the movie needed to be 90 minutes of nonstop mayhem and gore, but there definitely should've been more of both in the movie. The movie moves at a pace that would nicely facilitate your average slasher flick. It would accommodate a crazy guy with a knife who would have to carefully single out his victims. But remember... Rawhead is a mad, bloodthirsty, prehistoric god.

  The majority of this movie should've been old-testament crazy. Total gut wrenching chaos. Rawhead is impervious to any kind of physical harm as well. So we should've gotten something on a much larger scale. Yet the movie is firmly fastened to it's rural setting, so most of the time Rawhead was probably just power walking from farm to farm, killing off a farmer here and there every so many miles. Not very mayhem-inducing. It's also not particularly thrilling watching inept cops chase their tails and scoff at everyone who tries to describe Rawhead to them, right up until the reports start piling up, and everyone keeps describing the same thing.

  I gotta east off the protagonists though, they're actually well acted. The main protagonist is a writer who's researching ancient religions that predate christianity. First and foremost though, we see he's a dad who just wants to protect his family. He's actually a really solid protagonist. A nice change from the typical go-to cliche of the day. Seeing a misunderstood but trendy teenage girl face off against Rawhead wouldn't have been as engaging. Somehow, the fact this guy is a Dad with a family to think about really heightens the tension. I liked that. It doesn't make up for the pacing issues, or the lack of constant mayhem... but I like it.

  The last... forty to thirty minutes of the movie is great. The mayhem and chaos the very nature of the character demanded is finally realized. Explosions, screaming, people running in terror. Gorgeous. It's completely crazy, and it's perfect like that. It needed more craziness. As it is, it's 3/4th's an average slasher flick, but 1/4th a totally insane off-the-rails horror fest. Regardless though, Rawhead Rex himself is awesome. A scary looking boogeyman with a neat backstory. He's unique, and that lends flavor to the movie that it wouldn't have been worth watching without. As is, it's good. Not great and not classic no matter how much I want it to be. Nevertheless, it is good. A blood soaked romp through rural Scotland with a pissed off prehistoric god is always a fun time!