Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

06/26/2015

'Ultron' is the rare sequel that improves on original 'Avengers'

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In the annals of moviedom, it's oft been noted that a first sequel — "The Godfather Part II," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" — can actually surpass the original. Most of the story and character background has already been established and there's the chance to delve deeper.

This is certainly the case with "Avengers: Age of Ultron." We already know the bulk of characters and how they came together, their surface tensions and strengths. Now director-writer Joss Whedon has the opportunity to build relationships, flesh out disappointments, even look to what apparently is an uneven future.

Not that this movie isn't the expected huge barrel of noise and fireworks. It starts out running, in battle, and rarely slows down. But slow down it does, not with the long dead spots that marred the original "Avengers" film, but with well-chosen interludes that offer a glimpse into each major character's struggles and individual lives.

It's hardly a long-winded therapy session — Hulk still Smash plenty — but the human touches make for a far better superhero experience.

Now, as to that superhero thing. There are even more of them this time around, so many that Whedon has a tough time squeezing them all into his patented circling-round-the chaos shots. But squeeze he does, even as he continues to drop one liners and physical jokes into the mayhem.

Things start out in the fictional country Sokovia, where the Avengers are storming the fortress of Hydra, the Nazi organization left over from the Captain America movies. They win the day, of course, but can't capture two super-villains there — the twins Pietro Maximof (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is called Quicksilver because he's super-fast, and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), called Scarlet Witch because ... well, she can really mess with things, including people's heads.

The twins were orphaned when Stark Industry bombs hit their home, so they hate Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), otherwise known as Iron Man, and the other Avengers by association. This becomes more important when Stark decides to invent a guardian to protect mankind and instead ends up with a renegade artificially intelligent super-robot named Ultron (a perfect James Spader) who also makes the Avengers his sworn enemies.

Meanwhile Captain America (Chris Evans) is starting to realize he'll never live anything like a normal life; Black Widow (Scarlet...


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON  * 1 / 2

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Christ, what a slog.

A shame, because I rather enjoyed the previous Avengers picture and as far as this whole superhero multiplex domination plan by our corporate cinema overlords goes, if you leave out the Thor crap I think these Marvel movies are generally better than most. They cast interesting actors and give them room to strut a bit before the inevitable third-act CGI nonsense that always seems to involve an airship or something crashing over a major city while I go take a leak.

Avengers: Age of Ultron hits the ground running, presuming that since you are a citizen of the planet you’ve probably seen enough of the other ten movies in this series to get by without any introductions and so Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are already battling agents of HYDRA before the opening credits even roll. Writer-director Joss Whedon indulges in a pretty nifty computer-assisted shot scanning from Robert Downey’s forever-flippant Iron Man to Chris Evans’ achingly sincere Captain America, to Mark Ruffalo’s mad-as-hell Hulk, to Chris Hemsworth’s god of thunder Thor, to Scarlett Johansson’s hotcha ninja Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who has (um) a bow and arrow.

Three years ago Whedon’s The Avengers took all these disparate characters, mostly from standalone movies, and made them work together in the face of an alien invasion. The not inconsiderable fun ofThe Avengers was watching gifted soloists find a way to work as an ensemble. Now that we’ve done that, the laws of billion-dollar-grosses and franchise maintenance insist that we must do it again.

Problem is, we’re on our eleventh movie with these here Marvel folks and we’re running out of places to go with them. The first Iron Man was about Downey’s Tony Stark beginning the film as a callous, selfish dickhead learning humility, and he has repeated that same arc in every movie since. (It’s like someone hits a reset button and he becomes an asshole all over again for every subsequent sequel.) The lastCaptain America movie – which I’ve watched five or six times and really is as good as these pictures can probably get – pits our ever-stalwart true-blue hero against an over-reaching government...



06/01/2015

Movie review: Futuristic optimism of “Tomorrowland” is contagious

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I’ll let you in on a secret I’ve learned in my years as a film critic. There is no objective rightness and wrongness in how “good” a movie is. There’s no formula. I write about how a movie makes me feel — and try to have an eye for what audiences it will and won’t resonate with.

There are definitely things wrong with “Tomorrowland,” but I’d buy a ticket to watch it again just based on how it made me feel. It certainly has the hallmarks of a big-budget summer tentpole movie, but it’s also got a sense of wonder, imagination and, above all, optimism that a lot of big movies lack.

For starters, there’s more of an air of mystery about what this movie is even about in the trailers — a mystery I think is worthwhile and will do my best to preserve here, so don’t expect spoilers below.

The story involves smart and optimistic teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and smart and pessimistic inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), whose paths cross in the search for a secret place that points to a smart future. Was that vague enough?

Here’s what you should know about the pedigree of “Tomorrowland.” Yes, it’s a Disney flick — complete with a product placement plug for Disney World — but it also is the work of two great Hollywood imaginations, Brad Bird (“Ratatouille,” “The Iron Giant”) and Damon Lindelof (“Lost”).

And while there’s a massive budget behind it, those imaginations were given a lot of room to run. Director/writer Bird infuses the affair with a sense of wonder that calls back to vintage Steven Spielberg, and writer Lindelof’s touch is evident in surprisingly deep musings on the nature of humanity.

It’s also awesome to report that we have another big summer movie with a strong, smart female lead. Robertson makes Casey the kind of character you hope gets a role in shaping our future. Clooney’s casting is also a solid fit — and there’s another great young character I’m leaving as a surprise.

Back to that whole “how it made me feel” thing, I think there’s an audience that’s not going to connect the way I did. “Tomorrowland” is an odd mix of summer popcorn and the sort of convoluted stuff that makes some people hate Lindelof (disclosure: I liked the “Lost” finale).

But I came out of...


GEORGE CLOONEY HEADS TO DISNEY’S ‘TOMORROWLAND’ – IS IT WORTH A TICKET?

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Hope can be a hard sell these days. But optimism and rejection of cynicism are the main menu items in Tomorrowland, as prototypically “Walt Disney” a movie as you’d ever expect to see in 2015. It’s so retro Disney, in fact, that it could have been made in 1965. The movie’s inspiration is, of course, the Disneyland attraction Tomorrowland, the last built but most underfunded of the theme park’s distinct areas in 1955, meant to deliver a sunshiny, gleaming vision of an endlessly imaginative future Utopia bristling with dazzle, wonder, and American can-do spirit. Similarly, the new movie from director Brad Bird (maker of the certifiably great The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles) and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) is pitched at the world’s dreamers, visionaries, and cockeyed optimist.

Personifiying that theme is smart, snarky young heroine Casey (Britt Robertson, styled to resemble Jennifer Lawrence, only without the blazing charisma) who challenges her teachers when they spout cynical predictions of global annihilation, is a wiz at fixing mechanical things, and who sneaks out of the home of her dad (Tim McGraw) who’s been laid off from NASA so that she can dismantle the explosive devices that will trigger the imminent destruction of Cape Canaveral, that ‘60s era symbol of outsized ambition and imagination. Tapped for being “special” by a preternaturally poised little British girl (Raffey Cassidy, excellent and a dead ringer for the young Veronica Cartwright), Casey is given a special “T” medallion which, when clutched, zooms her to an Oz-ish nirvana of vision, brotherhood, and innovation. Cue the jetpacks, bottomless horizontally tiered swimming pools, waving wheat fields, flying transport trains, and helpful robots — beautiful, delightful stuff as one would expect from Bird.

But Casey’s way back to Tomorrowland is littered with obstacles so she is forced to join forces with Frank (George Clooney), a bristly, cynical bachelor burnout who warns that “the future is scary,” and who was similarly picked out and given a “T” pin of his own back in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair when he was a boundlessly upbeat child inventor. Now, living in hermit-like obscurity and forever banished from Tomorrowland for a transgression the movie never bothers to quite make clear, Frank must ignite...



04/14/2015

Cinderella | Film review – Lily James’s fairytale heroine comes up sparkling with a wave of Branagh’s magic wand

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Hollywood filmmakers are no slouches these days when it comes to subverting or sending-up fairy-tale conventions. But Kenneth Branagh does something much more daring. He plays things straight.

There’s nothing the least bit glib or snarky about his live-action adaptation ofCinderella. In place are all the fondly familiar elements you remember from Charles Perrault’s 18th-century tale and Disney’s 1950 animated version – including the magically transformed pumpkin and mice, and the glass slipper that slips from the winsome heroine’s foot at the stroke of midnight – but a deft wave of Branagh’s directorial wand ensures they come up looking fresh.

Lily James’s radiant Cinderella sparkles, too, even under a coating of soot as her downtrodden orphan endures the spiteful regime of a cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett, magnificently haughty) and snooty stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, a gleefully ghastly double act).

But her Cinderella is no wet rag. She’s far from limp when she first encounters the prince (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) in the midst of a woodland hunt and it’s her lively wit as much as her beauty that makes her so alluring.

This non-canonical episode, contrived for the film, is a good example of the way Chris Weitz’s screenplay nimbly tweaks tradition to make the story work for a contemporary audience. In another nice detail here, Weitz has Madden’s charming prince – preserving his true identity from Cinderella – claim to be an apprentice at the palace, learning his father’s trade.

So Branagh’s film has the human touch, but it doesn’t stint on the magic and spectacle, either. Sandy Powell’s costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design are suitably ravishing, and the eye-popping CGI – relatively sparingly used – comes into its own during the story’s big transformation scene, when Helena Bonham Carter’s delightfully dotty fairy godmother, an amused twinkle in her eye, turns pumpkin, mice, lizards and goose into carriage, horses, footmen and driver.

Finding the enduring enchantment in the age-old tale, Branagh’s own accomplishments as director are no less dazzling.


Not much magic to Disney's new 'Cinderella'

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As a director, Kenneth Branagh wields a camera like a quill pen, mannered and dull, seeking Shakespeare where he isn't.

After he dehydrated the pulpy fun from a Marvel superhero and Tom Clancy spies, you can imagine how Branagh mishandles Cinderella, so reverent and corny when a touch of mockery wouldn't hurt.

We don't expect a rollicking fairy tale spoof like Enchanted or an abomination like Snow White and the Huntsman. But thisCinderella is achingly old-fashioned, with scant humor, a regressive heroine and godmother effects that aren't special.

Branagh's Cinderella is an outdated Disney princess, from a time before Ariel and Belle redefined femininity in 'toons. Plenty of assertive, ambitious women have been drawn since. The trend toward live-action fairy tales gives them even more backbone.

So why does Ella, played by poseable starlet Lily James (Downton Abbey), need to be this bloodless, submissive and desperately in need of Prince Charming? Branagh even robs Ella of her singing voice; no dream-wish song for her, or any compositions from the 1950 soundtrack until the end credits. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo on that.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz sticks close to Charles Perrault's 1697 version of the folk tale, which informed Disney's animated classic. Ella is orphaned early, but not before Mother (Hayley Atwell) teaches her to be courageous and kind, and Father (Ben Chaplin) remarries. The rest can't possibly be spoiled by now.

James makes a lovely submissive, always turning the other perfectly sculpted cheek when life slaps Ella. She doesn't convey any more depth than a theme park Cinderella welcoming guests. Even the CGI mice sharing her prison loft appear gradually disenchanted.

It doesn't seem fair to match a cipher like James against Cate Blanchett's deliciously wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine. Her steely gaze and venomous line readings are the second-best thing about Cinderella, the first being Sandy Powell's swoony costume designs. The stepsisters' wardrobe, a collection of matching patterns in clashing colors, offers visual comic relief to a movie needing it from anywhere.

Since the audience for Cinderella is basically anyone dressing like her, Disney sweetens the offer by including the musical short Frozen Fever, sequel to THE BIGGEST 'TOON OF ALL TIME. In it, Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) plans a birthday party for Anna (Kristen Bell) while...



03/30/2015

Movie Review: Home Has Silly Aliens But Real Emotions

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The new DreamWorks animated film Home is a surprisingly moving tale of friendship and family, dressed up as an adorably frivolous sci-fi comedy. It kicks off on a cute-creepy note, with our cuddly, barrel-shaped, space-alien protagonist Oh (Jim Parsons) introducing his kind: the Boov, a species of intergalactic cowards constantly on the run — usually from the nasty, planet-destroying Gorg, another alien race. "The Boov," Oh tells us, are the "best species ever at running away." He adds, in his patented diction: "I am very excitement to make a fresh start. We are all moving to the best planet ever for to hide in." That planet, in case you haven’t seen the trailers, is Earth. How exactly do they plan to deal with us humans? Easy. They turn off gravity, harvest us in giant bubbles, and send us all to Australia — turning the continent into a massive suburban prison colony. They also take anything they deem worthless — bicycles, toilets, etc. — and collect them in giant clusters in the sky. Like I said, creepy, but cute.

A klutz and a social eager-beaver, Oh is not popular with his fellow Boov; their kind does not like parties or neighborliness or anything like that, and whenever Oh shows up, everybody hides. Regardless, the never-say-die Oh goes ahead and invites everybody in the universe to his housewarming party. Unfortunately, he invites literally everybody in the universe: He accidentally hits "send all" on his evite (the Boov have evites!), which means it is now heading out to the farthest reaches of space — and will soon inform the Gorg where the Boov are hiding.

As he tries to flee his vindictive fellow Boov, Oh runs into Tip (voiced by Rihanna), a lone Barbadian-American teenager hiding out from the alien invasion while waiting for her mom (Jennifer Lopez) to return. Together, the two of them race against the clock to find Tip’s mom, and also stop the evite from reaching the Gorg. Speedy chases ensue, mostly in a flying car that Oh tricks out to run on multi-flavored slushies, and the two outcasts get to know each other. They have a nice rapport, and it’s also nice to see another major animated film headlined by a black female heroine. (Has there been one since The Princess and the Frog? I don’t recall.)

Still, one might ask if there’s anything else to distinguish Home from the countless other animated films out there...


Home

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The latest computer animation from DreamWorks continues the studio's aggressive and cynical approach to children's entertainment, pummeling viewers with mechanical-looking action sequences (which suggest video game demos), unfunny one-liners, and overly loud pop songs and sound effects. A race of aliens who resemble corporate mascots colonize earth, relocating all humans to a giant suburban community in the Australian desert. Left behind in New York, a young immigrant (given voice by pop singer Rihanna, who also performs most of the songs) befriends a misfit alien who promises to help find her mother. The sentimentality is utterly phony, and the filmmakers lay it on thick. Watching this feels like mainlining Pixy Stix, and it's probably about as good for you. Tim Johnson directed.



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