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A Series of Plodding Events
At the start of Room, a young woman and her five-year-old son are living in the titular edifice, a backyard shed. The woman (Brie Larson) has always told Jack (Jacob Tremblay) that "outer space" is all that exists outside Room; as far as Jack is concerned, this is the gospel truth and the universe consists of Room and Room alone.
It is not giving anything away to note that Ma and Jack escape Room, as the movie is more about the ability of each to cope with the outside world. For Jack, every step and every breath outside is a wholly new experience. Ma, despite having lived for 17 years before coming to Room, encounters different obstacles the world has moved on, and she doubts her own ability as a mother to Jack.
I had been expecting a suspenseful drama-thriller about a daring escape, given the various synopses I'd read. (The movie is based on a novel by Emma Donoghue, which is itself loosely based on real events.) Much of the first half of the film, though, concentrates on life inside Room for Ma and Jack. Ma uses her strong will and infinite patience to convince Jack for five years that all is well and that what they have is a normal life, that what they see on television is not real, but everything from the single bed to the lidless toilet tank is definitely real. Ma sacrifices as much as she can to keep Jack happy and (relatively) safe, even to the point of giving herself over to her captor on a regular basis in exchange for food and other items for Jack and herself.
To say that this first half moves slowly would be to understate things. We don't just get a slice of the life that the duo leads; we get the entire pie, and most of it just isn't all that exciting or intriguing. We do get to see a little into the characters of the characters, pardon the phrasing. We see that Jack doesn't like to not get his way or to have his worldview challenged. Then again, who does at age 5? We see that Ma is often calm but firm with her young charge. It's a small Room, after all; no need to go nuclear when there's really no point to it. In any event, much time is spent watching their everyday sheltered lives. Because the general plot involved their lives beyond Room, I began to grow impatient: Were they going to spend the entire movie in Room, only to escape in the final minutes? Why wouldn't anything happen? The fact that Ma and Jack would eventually escape left the first half of the movie perfectly devoid of suspense. Although still waters do often run deep, I didn't really feel like I was getting a lot out of watching a whole lot of nothing.
Once they do escape, though, things pick up. The focus quickly shifts from a struggle for survival to a struggle to understand. Ma's parents, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy, have different reactions to the return of their daughter and the arrival of their new (to them) grandson. In the five years since Ma's abduction, her parents have separated; her dad lives on the other side of the country now, and her mom lives with her friend Leo (Tom McCamus). With Ma's return, there's a lot of media hype, and lawyers, atop a potent array of stress factors. Escaping may have been the easy part.
The acting is uniformly terrific. Larson's work is powerful, evocative, and heart-wrenching, and it's definitely award worthy. Allen and Macy also excel with perhaps the best work in their respective careers, and that's saying something. Young Tremblay is also very good as is his character, a plucky, long-haired cherub who's more at home in Room than in the outside world (and with good reason).
But the acting cannot overcome what's basically a very turgid script. Room is punchless at its core, and it would be a total waste if it weren't for the Herculean efforts of its talented cast. When there is no action, I look for meaning. When there is no meaning or action, I look for the exit. Room suffers from spending too much time contemplating things and not enough time doing them or at least discussing them. Forget the action, I wouldn't have minded seeing more reaction. The first half of the movie could have been subtitled "A Series of Plodding Events." The second half goes a long way toward saving the first, thanks in part to additional characters and a fresh setting, but it's not enough to save the entire movie.
Jurassic World (2015)
The fourth Jurassic Park movie lacks the excitement and creativity of its progenitor. Although it is set some twenty years after the events of the first film, and although the similar plot centers around a theme park with live dinosaurs, there appear to have been no lessons learned. The entire movie feels as if the viewer is stranded on the island with everyone else, except that they're on the Island of Poor Decision-Making Skills and not fabled Isla Nublar.
Like most people, I was pretty charged up to see the new movie, since it'd been so long since the first go-around that the special effects have become much more invigorating and realistic. As fate would have it, however, the effects looked to be about the same as they had been in 1993, and that's saying something. I even saw the movie in 3D, thinking that lifelike dinosaurs would help make good use of that technology. Nothing doing. The 3D felt almost nonexistent, and not in the sense that it melted into the background (so to speak). It felt, in fact, as if someone had forgotten to leave it on for the duration of the movie.
Jurassic World is set in what's more or less the present day. The park has indeed reopened, under the stewardship of Masrani (Irrfan Khan of Life of Pi). Masrani presents himself as someone who doesn't care so much about profits as he does about people being entertained and wowed by the park's attractions. Yes, sort of reminiscent of John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) and his grand vision for the original park. Masrani's operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), as the movie opens, is showing off the park to potential sponsors. You know, like the Coca-Cola Pavilion at the World's Fair. Or whoever sponsors Spaceship Earth in EPCOT Center, for those of you who have no idea what the World's Fair was.
The same day that Claire meets with the sponsors, her nephews Gray and Zach arrive for some bonding time. Seems Mom and Dad decided to send the boys to the park so that they could interact with Aunt Claire, who hasn't seen them in seven years or so. The presence of the kids on the island forecasts doom from the get-go, because certainly at some point they need to be imperiled. Don't worry; they will be. Being a stereotypical hard-driven, childless woman, Claire hands the boys over to her British assistant, who promptly loses (is ditched by) them. Older brother Zach is moody and somewhat sullen, as teenage boys are wont to be, and younger brother Gray is full of both energy and dino details, much like Timmy from JP1.
This time around, the big attractions aren't the T-Rexes (or their exes - ha!); they're bigger and badder. The park's new creature is called Indominus rex, which turns out to be a hybrid of a T-rex and several other animals. Don't ask which animals; it's a secret to everyone, even Claire and Masrani. At any rate, to make sure everything's good to go before the new dinos are unveiled to the public, park trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is called in to evaluate little Indommy's paddock. The paddock looks secure, all right, but wouldn't you know it, the beast appears to have departed, presumably for a place where one can swallow cows whole without having to wait for a server to show up.
And with that, our plot is really set in motion. There's a dino on the loose! It's funny how this keeps happening. Only now, instead of a few people who are scoping out the park before it officially opens, there are tens of thousands of people on the island, with the park fully open for business. But there's no reason to close the park, right? Of course not! It is not revealing anything of importance to mention that the first group of guards to try to contain Indominus carry nonlethal weapons. You know, so they can stun a seven-story tall monster. This is not as effective as you might think.
Jurassic World is much more action movie than sci-fi movie. Instead of human characters exhibiting human characteristics, we're presented with an relatable group of people. Pratt's Owen is a hero, a good guy who has qualms about mistreating all creatures, but he's more Rambo than Indiana Jones - or Alan Grant. I like that he's there to save us all, but the lack of development of his character, who's sort of a combination of Grant and Ian Malcolm, means the movie takes a step backward in terms of fundamentally sound, creative writing. Perhaps this is the result of four different people having a hand in the screenplay.
If you're too young to have experienced Jurassic Park or just plain like dumb and loud action movies, Jurassic World should please you. Kids should like it, particularly since there's little to really scare the pants off them. There are several homages to not only the first JP but also JP II and JP III, which does place this one solidly in the same cinematic universe as those other three. But two hours of chase scenes interrupted by too many haphazardly animated, similar-looking dinosaurs fighting each other and smashing humans may grow tiresome as you await the inevitable and foregone conclusion. Not to mention the obvious setup for a fifth movie.
Life Itself (2014)
Moving, elegant, realistic
Like most movie fans who weren't from Chicago, I was introduced to Roger Ebert through At the Movies, the television show he shared with Gene Siskel, on our local PBS station. Ebert and Siskel were by then already well ingrained in the psyche of the American movie watcher. No longer did we have to rely on the whim of a local newspaper columnist to tell us what may be worth watching. Siskel and Ebert brought life to the movies, and movies to life. Their bickering ran the gamut from the globally sociological to the to the kind of detailed minutia that even the most dedicated cinema nerd would shake his head at. That's what made the show work, and for me it was Ebert's outsized personality that was the true driving force behind it all.
Life Itself is based on Ebert's memoirs of the same name, and it's directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams). A good deal of the movie was shot while Ebert was still alive, although the narration in his voice was provided by a very good impressionist after the fact. James intersperses various biographical scenes with present-day Ebert, riddled with pain but still maintaining a two-thumbs-raised attitude. And, lest he be accused of unabashed hagiography, James makes sure that we see the warts of Ebert's life, through the eyes of people close to him - his wife Chaz, Siskel's wife Marlene, critic Richard Corliss, and producers of the TV show.
Even those of us who knew Ebert as "the fat one" on the show knew that there was quite a bit more to the man: his sharp wit, his brilliant prose, and his undeniable zest for all things movies. Truth be told, Roger Ebert was such a talented writer because he was insanely passionate about the movies - what they meant to him personally and what he felt that the average moviegoer would appreciate about them. When you read a review by Ebert, you never really got the feeling that he was issuing an edict from on high, sitting with a quill pen in hand in a small room atop an ivory tower. That was the key to his success. He was writing to you and for you. Roger Ebert was your eyes, your ears, and your voice. Roger Ebert got you.
The film journeys from Ebert's upbringing as an only child in a middle-class family to his success running the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to his days reviewing countless films for the Chicago Sun-Times (as the youngest full-time movie reviewer at a major-market newspaper) to his days as Siskel's sparring partner through to his days as a progenitor of the use of social media to create original content and foster communication with like-minded movie buffs around the world.
Several scenes are of present-day Ebert, and it is these that are the most touching and unnerving. In 2002, he was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands; unfortunately, infection later set in, and after several further operations, the lower jaw was necessarily removed. James began his documentary after this last procedure, and thus the present-day shots include a jawless Ebert. There are even scenes in which the viewer can clearly see through Ebert's mouth to his sternum.
Through all of his medical travails, Ebert continued to work, nurturing a strong online presence, reviewing countless terrible (and great) films, always writing and always from the heart. James, for his part, does a wonderful job capturing not only Ebert's commanding presence (even while infirm) but also his frailities, which Ebert himself owns like a champ. "This is who I am now," he says, particularly in reference to rather unflattering cover photo for Esquire magazine, "take it or leave it." Steve James shows us a flawed Roger Ebert. Ebert is not always right, no matter how loudly he shouts at Gene Siskel. He does not always get his way. He is not always the most likable guy; indeed, in his early years his driving ego was complemented by sheer talent, and eventually the former gave way (mostly) to the latter. Ebert was also a longtime recovering alcoholic and a man who thrived on being the center of attention, a man who desperately wanted to be a part of things and could either play a fool or employ scathing wit to that end.
Life Itself is not simply a film about a critic, made for condescending movie fans to fawn over. It is a story about a brilliant, flawed man who wrote passionately about movies and other subjects. It is a movie for fans of humanity.
Loosely based on the Disney attraction of the same name, Tomorrowland is a kinetic frenzy of amazing effects. However, despite the fine pedigree of the director and star, the movie falls a little flat, with a plot that begged for more coherence and elucidation.
Teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is one of those kids who loves to learn things. Okay, maybe there aren't many of those kids, but they're probably out there somewhere. Always tinkering, this one.
Casey lives near Cape Canaveral, where a launch platform is being deconstructed. A launch platform means a job for her dad, who's a NASA guy, so our curious, proactive heroine routinely jumps a fence and sabotages the equipment used to take the whole shebang apart. This leads to Casey getting in trouble with Johnny Law, leading to a very brief stay in a holding cell, but when she emerges among her belongings is a mysterious metal pin with a "T" logo on it. That's odd enough, since she had little on her when The Man pinched her, but when she touches the pin, she finds herself somewhere that's most definitely not the police station: a large wheat field with a futuristic city on the horizon.
Casey's experience dovetails with that of one Frank Walker, a boy inventor who takes his newly cobbled jet pack to the World's Fair and Exposition in 1964 in New York. Like Casey in the present day, Frank finds himself in possession of another of the strange pins, one given to him by eternally childlike Athena.
But back to the present. It seems that the pin allows the holder (for a time) to travel to a different dimension. But poor Casey's pin has run out of juice, so she wants to find another mode of transportation. This leads her to the doorstep of one cranky Frank Walker (George Clooney), a recluse who sends out a holographic dog to scare off unwelcome visitors. They're all unwelcome.
This being a rather straightforward Disney movie, there's a bad guy, a Governor Nix, played by Hugh Laurie. Nix here represents an obstacle to creativity and imagination, traits that both Frank and Casey proudly display. But, as written, the villain is pretty lame. Not only doesn't Nix attack his perceived opponents, he's actually quite accommodating to them. Very British of him, really. What's more, Nix's reasons for opposing the dynamic duo are actually quite sound, even if the methods aren't. What kind of bad guy is that? We learn very little about the magical new place that Frank and Casey visit. I mean, we know it's futuristic, what with all the flying cars and overall clean atmosphere, but we don't know how it came to be or what its long-term purpose is. We're given some vague platitudes about gather the best minds, but we're never really told to what purpose.
Clooney and Robertson hold their own, even if their interaction does feel a little forced at times. Laurie seems miscast. Tim McGraw plays Casey's dad in a few brief but important scenes. Perhaps the best performance is turned in by young Raffey Cassidy, who plays the enigmatic Athena.
Tomorrowland is, purportedly about the importance of remaining hopeful. Casey is our optimist; Frank is our pessimist. One has the benefit of experience that the other does not. But there's also an undercurrent of environmental awareness, or the imminent mortality of man, and other lighthearted issues.
For a Disney live-action film, Tomorrowland is acceptably gregarious. It entertaining in its own right. But as a sci-fi movie, it falls short; there's too much superficial wonder and not enough honest-to-goodness science and ingenious wizardry.
Killer Joe (2011)
Killer is a thriller
Chris Smith has a problem. He owes a lot of money to some bad men, his dad can't loan him the cash, and he's sort of a lowlife. So he hatches a plan to hire a guy to kill his mom so that his younger sister Dottie can get the insurance settlement. This is never a good plan in the movies, and probably not in real life, either. As you may well deduce, things do not go as planned in this excellent crime thriller from an old hand, director William Friedkin.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) knows a guy who knows a guy. The second guy is Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hired killer. Nice work if you can get it, as they say. The intimidating Cooper lets it be known that he wants part of his fee upfront, and it's not a small amount, as a retainer. On the one hand, it's a heck of a lot smaller than the insurance payout will be. On the other hand, neither Chris, his beaten-down dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), nor his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) has the money - they were counting on the insurance to be able to pay off Killer Joe. These people are not adept at project planning.
So Joe, rather than simply walk away from a situation from which he can't really benefit, comes up with an alternative: the family will "loan" him Dottie (Juno Temple), a twentysomething virgin (I know, right?) who's best described as being terminally naive. Now, a normal family might reject this idea outright: What father in his right mind would let an acknowledged killer have his way with his daughter? Well, these aren't normal folks. Besides, they got a killing to attend to.
As you may logically conclude, once that little line of selling out your kinfolk has been crossed, there's no turning back. We know full well we're in for a heap of double crossing. And a lot of yelling and screaming. And, as a matter of fact, blood and deadness. So although, on the surface, the plot may look like it's from a low-rent Cinemax feature, the surprising intensity and viciousness of McConaughey and the remarkable supporting cast (particularly Gershon) drive this story a long, long way. Even the writing (by Tracy Letts, who wrote the play on which the movie is based) is crisp and plausible but not overly predictable. Killer Joe is a grimy, grisly, dusty, and foul-mouthed minor classic, presided over by an unlikely bad seed: Matthew McConaughey.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The latest Mad Max is a frenzied, endless race of souped-up, well-armed vehicles across a whole lot of sand. The relentless pace makes for a wildly exciting film for which the plot is superfluous and generally unnecessary. There is much mayhem and madness. It is quite good.
This is perhaps the best pure action movie you'll see this year; even The Avengers and Star Wars have a fully developed story to get in the way. This one is a shot of pure adrenaline that never lets up. Here, the titular antihero has been captured by one of those omnipresent roving biker gangs I expect we'll all see in the near future. Max is turned over to a slaver/warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who controls water and food for everyone in his stronghold, called The Citadel, doling it out whenever he sees fit. He also uses women for their breast milk and maintains a concubine of several wives, so you know he's not a good guy.
Working for Joe - or, rather, idolizing him to the point where they believe he and only he can lead them into the afterlife world of Valhalla - are the War Boys, pale zealots who pilot terrifying vehicles of mass destruction and gain their strength and energy by usurping blood from generous donors - like Max. The War Boys love Max.
Anyhow, every so often ol' Joe has to send out an Imperator for supplies; the Imperator drives a huge rig called a War Rig that's exceedingly well armed and customized to the driver's tastes. The driver in this case is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has another plan in mind - rescue dear Joe's wives and take them to her own birthplace, the Green Place. Joe quickly gets wind of this and sends out a flurry of War Boys. One of the Boys, named Nux, is weak and in need of blood, so he straps the newly captured Max - a universal donor - to a pole on the front of his machine, and the race is on. Mission for the bad guys - stop Furiosa. Mission for the good guys - get to the Green Place by any means necessary.
Really, the entire movie is a chase across a barren wasteland. It is a post-apocalyptic world, after all. There's leaping from car to car to truck! Oh, and the War Boys? They attach these long, bendy poles on the hoods of their vehicles with one of their own at the top. Then they can bend to and fro and either jump on the War Rig or maybe sneak in through the sun roof, steal a wife or two, and bounce back. Sheer genius! There's an enormous, blinding lightning sandstorm that accounts for much of the CGI in the film, but for the most part the effects are anything but computer generated. Loved the visual look of the movie, too, with washed-out landscapes and colorful foregrounds. Director George Miller's vision shows a world that appears dead on the outside but with glimmers of that most valuable of commodities - hope. And all of the little details, such as the vehicles themselves (some hybrids of 1950s cars, including an original Beetle) and Furiosa's guns and prosthetic arm, add the right touch. And how's his for strange - 3D is put to good use here, with junk (and people) flying off of cars and right between your eyeballs! For much of the first third of the movie, Max wears a face guard that sort of looks like an upside down pitchfork. One would assume Hardy is used to such gear at this point, having been through The Dark Knight Rises as Bane. Here, he's even tougher than Bane, even after he's had blood sapped from him like syrup from a maple tree. Max's name, incidentally, is mentioned only three times in the movie. Which is fine, of course - after all, we the audience know damn well who he is, and the lack of a name for his traveling companions lends itself quite nicely to his anonymity. He's like an even more badass Man with No Name. But he does have compassion, mainly because what haunts poor Max's every waking moment is the feeling that he let innocent people die (see previous three films in the series). Will that happen on Fury Road? Not on his watch! (Possibly.) Hardy is the figurative bomb as Max, a towering dynamo of nonstop energy. Theron gets "ugly" again (note: she is not ugly, even here) with a shaved head, big muscles, and an attitude that would make Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor weep with respect. She should definitely make more action movies, provided they're more like this and not like Aeon Flux. It's always great to see a strong female protagonist, and here we have several; in addition to Furiosa, Immortan Joe's wives aren't wilting flowers but rather ass kickers who can load and fire guns. Pretty refreshing to see that, you know? This latest Mad Max - and will it be the last? - had me on the edge of my seat, which meant that I had to hold on lest I was blown away. But indeed, I was metaphorically blown away anyway, with a much-welcome return to visceral violent cinema in one of the year's top films.
RoboCop, a remake of that genial 1987 killer-cyborg film of the same name, is a colossal disappointment, a incoherent mess that's saddled with a below-average script, lousy casting, and superficial performances. It's not as if the original movie was so awesome that no remake could ever compare; Peter Weller's RoboCop was a fun action movie with a budget on the lower end of the scale. But this 2014 redo lacks soul, wit, and a point.
Cop Alex Murphy (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman) works the nation's most violent city - Detroit, of course. He and his partner find out about large-scale corruption in their ranks. The big bad guy who's paying off the other cops gets wind of this discovery and has one of his henchman plant a bomb under Murphy's car. Car goes explodey, but does Murphy die? No, they can rebuild him. They have the technology.
They, in this case, is OmniCorp, which is surely a kind, benevolent company that would never seek to profit off war-making machines. Anyway, when Murphy wakes up he's in the lab of one Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who has constructed a sort of indestructible exoskeleton around what remains of Murphy's body. The idea is to have Murphy rejoin the police force and solve cases, which will make OmniCorp look like geniuses, and both generals and loose women will throw themselves at the company in gratitude.
Murphy's suit (it's not really a suit) is equipped with all sorts of weaponry and the ability to access crime databases almost instantaneously. This makes it rather easy to collar the bad guys. But what about the bad guys who put Murphy in this state? That's when OmniCorp and the the Detroit police department get a little uneasy and tug their collars. Or perhaps they're just realizing how bad the movie's turned out.
Michael Keaton, who was recently Oscar nominated for his work in Birdman, plays the head of OmniCorp, and he basically phones this one in. His character's motivations are to make money, damn the consequences, so maybe the part's not exactly multilayered. One can almost picture Keaton looking over the script, shrugging, and imagining what he'll do with the extra cash on hand. I mean, the guy's name is even Sellars, so Keaton had little to work with. Trouble is, someone of Keaton's acting caliber should have added a lot to a flat line of a character. Oldman, playing his chief scientist, fares no better. Dr. Norton seems like a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, but he lies to Murphy throughout the movie and frequently shows his discontent by sighing and shaking his head. The moral implications, man! Think of the moral implications! Jackie Earle Haley is on hand as an acerbic weapons guy working for Sellars, and again the character feels like a missed opportunity. Haley has shown plenty of charisma in previous roles, but here he's just the guy who doesn't trust Murphy the Cyborg Cop and treats him like dirt. Haley's Maddox is an unfunny jerk with an uncertain axe to grind. Samuel L. Jackson is the host of a pro-robotics TV program who pops up every now and then to wonder why we don't use robot soldiers in the U.S., like other countries do. Abbie Cornish, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Jennifer Ehle fill the female roles; if it's any consolation, those roles are just as underwritten as the male ones are. Finally, gender equality! But two actors really stand out in the movie, and certainly not for good reasons. Jay Baruchel, best known for voicing Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, is a marketing exec here. But it's really hard to take a business guy seriously when he sounds like he's still going through puberty. Marketers in movies are typically obnoxious, but Baruchel can't even bring the expected (and necessary) level of bluster and crass abrasiveness to the role. He's just annoying. Worst of them all, though, is Kinnaman as Alex Murphy. Kinnaman, perhaps best known for not being Peter Weller, brings little presence to the lead role - no poise, no attitude, no hubris, no nothing. He plays Murphy in such a one-dimensional manner that you'll think you've slipped into an entire universe altogether. (Probably one in which casting a block of wood in a major action movie makes sense.) Kinnaman is in over his head, and essentially his cast can't pick up the slack. There's too much slack. In fact, the entire movie (written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner, the latter two who co-wrote the original film) is slack.
There's plenty of blame to go around for this debacle. Sure, it's a remake, and people rarely expect much out of them. But director Jose Padilha turns in a product that seems to be poorly executed from the ground up. The characters are badly realized sketches on a cocktail napkin. The effects, while updated from 1987, aren't anything to write home about. Every time I saw Kinnaman on screen, I was reminded of Mark Metcalf's character from Animal House, not Peter Weller in RoboCop or even Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. And while the image of the original movie isn't tarnished (since comparatively few saw this remake/reboot anyway), there seems to be no need for more films in the series.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
In which Iron Man and Hulk fight
The second Avengers movie is one of those that just plain makes me happy. And, judging by the box office so far, it's made a lot of other people happy as well. It's a grand continuation of the adventures of familiar characters, but it's so witty, original, and exciting that it's also a terrific stand-alone film.
The gang's still around, even though their former employer SHIELD is not. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the team as they try to root out the last of the HYDRA cells. They do, and they recapture the scepter of Loki, who does not appear in this movie. This leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to decide to revive a dormant AI program, all in the name of peacekeeping, because those things never go wrong. It's clear that Stark would rather move on to do something other than save the world every couple of days, and so he figures the new AI, Ultron, can finally bring peace to the world. Whoopsie! Spoiler alert: It does no such thing.
The really awful thing about Ultron isn't that he's super-intelligent and powerful (even more so than JARVIS, Stark's AI-servant), it's that he can pop up in any machine, anywhere, because that's just what you'd expect an evil machine to do - upload himself to the Internet and wreak some havoc.
Ultron (James Spader) comes across twins who are totally not mutants at all because that would infringe on Fox's X-Men copyright - Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who's fast, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who's good with the mind games. The bad guy plans to use the duo's loathing of Tony Stark (it's complicated) to help him rid the world of the Avengers.
Meanwhile, inner conflicts begin to brew among our heroes. Is Stark truly selfish and not a team player? Can Hulk totally Hulk out without making the civilian populace terrified of him? Is Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) able to deal with her own demons long enough to establish a relationship with Banner? And is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) good for anything? Joss Whedon once said (reportedly) that working with the Avengers characters is much more demanding than working with, say, the X-Men characters, because the latter share common problems (i.e., they're mutants). The Avengers have different problems from one another, different personalities, and different enemies. One is a god from another realm, and another is in his eighties (technically). So it's not just a matter of getting them to work together as a team against a single enemy, as the different backgrounds sometimes run counter to each other.
Of all of the characters, though, I think Black Widow is the most layered. We know that Natasha has been through an awful lot, even compared with her teammates, and that's why she's more or less a closed book to them. I also think Johannsson provides an exciting, vulnerable, empowering performance. She's not just playing a superhero - she's a full-fledged character.
There are some familiar faces, too - Nick Fury pops up. Sidekicks (sort of?) for I-Man and Cap also make appearances. There is much joking; hilarity often ensues. There's a new layer of levity, in fact. There's an early scene in which Cap takes out a bunch of henchmen with his shield and mutters (paraphrasing here) "Well, that was fun." This is followed by, off-screen, "No, it wasn't!" Hee! Hee! With the panache of an old-time serial and the touch of the pathos of a Douglas Sirk drama, the Avengers sequel is a visionary omnibus of meshing styles and genres. I'd call it the pinnacle of comic-book movies, but we have at least two more Avengers films - plus Ant-Man, another Captain America, and on and on.
Gojira no gyakushû (1955)
A Godzilla by any other name...
You know how it goes: if you've seen one Godzilla movie, you probably have seen all you need to see. And what that awkwardly written sentiment means is that these movies are pretty much the same each time out. Big difference? The ever-changing "other creature" that Godzilla must battle. Here, as the big guy Raids Again (!), he goes up against an unnamed angliosaur, which sort of looks like a downtrodden stegosaurus.
Godzilla is first spotted by a Japanese pilot named Tsukioka as the latter attempts the rescue of a fellow flier, Kobayashi, on a remote island in the Pacific. The two think they're all safe and sound when - suddenly! - they hear the resounding thunder of two mighty beasts fighting. Or, in this case, two well-worn plastic models, or perhaps a couple of guys in suits. It could have been either, frankly. At any rate, back in Japan, scientists explain that the original Godzilla, who was killed in the first film (don't act like you didn't know that), died as a result of an "oxygen destroyer"; sadly, the man who invented the device is also dead, and so are any plans. So that answers that. But does it? All's fine, with Godzilla still out in the ocean, minding his own beeswax, until he's rousted by the Japanese air fleet, which makes him head for the island nation. Directly for Osaka, of course, one of the few cities not affected by Godzilla #1. Godzilla wreaks havoc and kicks butt, and then the angliosaur - who they call Angilas, so I guess he wasn't unnamed after all - returns from the sea to battle Godzilla. Big fight ensues. Mass destruction. Lots of carnage.
Godzilla (who doesn't do any actual raiding)'s second movie was rushed into production, showing in theaters a scant six months after the first movie. Sometimes, it shows. The effects are comically bad, even by 1955 standards. The film's dubbed in English, so naturally the audio's a mismatch. The Godzilla suit that some poor guy has to wear is obviously a Godzilla suit - there are several shots in which the monster turns to a side but the suit doesn't. Perhaps a seamstress was needed on set. In other shots, a model was transparently used, as the monster has all of the physical range of poor Stephen Hawking. It's tough to get too excited about the action, but some of the flying scenes do hold up pretty well.
I needed so badly to see this Godzilla movie before I saw others, because of course one must see these things in order. Well, maybe not. Anyway, in this movie, the big fella is referred to as Gigantis. No, I'm not kidding. For reals, now. According to IMDb, this is either because Warner Brothers couldn't get permission to use the name (but it was okay to use in the title?) or because the producer of the American version wanted to give viewers the impression that this was an entirely new monster. Don't think he succeeded on that front.
The Babadook (2014)
Shallow, disappointing junk
Although interesting to look at, The Babadook is an appalling mess of a horror film, with irritating characters, a lack of genuine suspense, and a style that's more likely to evoke mild bemusement than sincere dread and terror.
The premise is a familiar one. Young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is seemingly haunted by a spirit that no one else can see, and of course no one else believes said spirit exists, least of all his mother Amelia (Essie Davis), who's struggling with the sudden, violent death of her husband and sees Samuel's "ghost" as Samuel's way of dealing with his own grief.
Things kick into a higher gear when Samuel finds a book called The Babadook on his bookshelf. No kids' book this, The Babadook is about an out-to-get-you entity, complete with terrifying artwork and menacing words. It's so scary that Amelia can't stomach reading it all to Samuel. This ain't no ordinary book. The Babadook will come a-calling, first to the child in disguise and then to the kid's mother; then it'll just do it's haunting thing. The better to drive you insane, my dear.
Samuel begins to act out. I got the impression that he'd been having behavioral issues (likely stemming from his dad's death), but once the book arrives, those issues increase infinitely in intensity. He misbehaves in school, at the park, and at his cousin's party; at the latter, he pushes his obnoxious, teasing cousin out of a treehouse, which enrages his aunt. So much for family and understanding, right? Eventually, Amelia is able to secure some medication for Samuel to keep him calm, but soon the spectre of the Babadook is in her head, too.
A few points. First, even in recent memory there have been plenty of nobody-believes-I'm-being-haunted plots. Even with the children's book as a hook, this story is well worn indeed. But what really counts against it is that the kid is so over-the-top horrible from the beginning of the movie that it's nigh impossible to feel any real sympathy for him - until and unless the plot says it must be so. Samuel is, to put it bluntly, a real jerk. He's mean to everyone and disobeys his mom constantly.
Sure, we can explain this away by pointing to the dad's death (he died in an accident on the way to the hospital when Samuel was born) - but since he never knew his dad, it feels like the logic is twisting to suit a screenwriter's desperate needs. Samuel is so obnoxious that he spends about the first twenty minutes screaming "MOM" at the top of his lungs. I'm sure you parents out there can relate to how wonderfully appealing this sound is. It's so nice to be wanted.
When Amelia herself inevitably becomes haunted by the Babadook as well, things get progressively worse. She's angry! She's normal! She's loving! She's cruel! She's seeing things! She's experiencing reality! It's a whirlwind of lazy, lazy writing. And, true to the trope, no one believes Amelia's claims that Something is happening - not the school, which clearly doesn't care about Samuel's well being; not her sister, who doesn't stop to consider that Amelia may truly need her help; not the Child Services people, who drop in unannounced and have no idea why this person is cleaning the kitchen because of a hole in the wall that doesn't exist. No one cares. Maybe that's because everyone involved saw the first part of the film, in which neither mother nor son comes off as particularly sympathetic.
I got the impression that this movie merely needed a better director (than Jennifer Kent), writer (Kent), and actors (Davis and especially Wiseman). That's not asking too much, right? In the right hands, The Babadook would have been a stylish, Gothic psychological drama, but instead it's a run-of-the-mill plot sunk by aimless direction and a real lack of panache. There are just too many ludicrous scenes in this film to stomach. William Friedkin, of all people, claims that he's never seen a more terrifying film than this one; we can thus infer that Mr. Friedkin has never seen his own horror classic, The Exorcist.