Movie Review ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Linda Cardellini, Mark Ruffalo, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Claudia Kim

Director: Joss Whedon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s the thing that I like most about a good smörgåsbord – there’s something for everyone. Hot food, cold food, deserts, salads…it’s all at your fingertips and you can have as much or as little as you like. When presented with so many options, the whole experience can be somewhat overwhelming…but once you’ve had the chance to survey the selections and try out some choice cuts, you usually wind up walking away feeling a sense of fulfillment.

If any movie of 2015 (or any film in recent memory, actually) can be likened to a smörgåsbord it most certainly is this hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s The Avengers. Offering bigger thrills and higher stakes, it’s a gargantuan film that redefines the term blockbuster. Still, I have to be honest and say that while it’s an all-together overpowering outing from the get-go, it took me a good twenty minutes to acclimate myself to writer/director Joss Whedon’s awe-inspiring sequel.

Starting up in the middle of the kind of go-big-or-go-home battle usually reserved for the latter half of other would-be blockbusters (the first of five jumbo battle royales featured in the 2.5 hour film), there’s no time wasted in re-introducing our friendly group of superheroes. Most of the crusaders have solidly led the way in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) while others have turned in noble supporting turns (Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine) in the same movies. Grouped together on screen, as The Avengers proved so impressively well, they can defeat schemes of world domination while rattling off Whedon’s quip-heavy banter.

Whedon knows his way around a clever turn of phrase but there’s a limit to how much witty repartee can be tossed at the audience before it begins to feel a little too astute for its own good. There seems to be an overly earnest need to kick things off on the right foot by giving us the greatest hits of Tony Stark, the master of delivering a one-liner, while storming the eastern European castle featured in the beginning battle. It’s just all a little much for this reviewer…but luckily Whedon and crew achieve a nice balance of fun and furious action in a plot that has a lot going on but never feels overstuffed.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron works in pieces as a stand-alone film, it will really pay off for the wise viewer that has already seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Several familiar faces from these films pop up and, as was the case in the The Avengers, it’s nice to see how many cross over characters play a part in the action without it all feeling like a ComicCon version of The Love Boat.

What’s the plot you ask? Best to let you find that out yourself so as not to spoil some of Whedon’s more elaborate set-ups. What I can relay is that it involves a villainous bit of Stark created Artificial Intelligence named Ultron spectacularly voiced by James Spader (Mannequin) managing to inject humanity with a devious sarcasm into this completely CGI role – it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving voice to the destructive machine with such flair. Ultron has big plans for The Avengers and the world as a whole from the moment he comes online with the help of a familiar piece of sought-after power. Aided by a pair of powerful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen…both featured in last summer’s Godzilla) and a host of bad robots, Ultron keeps the hits coming right up until the grandest of grand finales of any large-scale action film I can recall. The only way it could have been bigger is if the theater set off fireworks at the end.

Returning to the fray are Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Paul Bettany (Mortdecai), and Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) and it’s worth noting that everyone seems happy to have their moment in the sun and then let their colleagues have their time to shine too.

Marvel is just on an unstoppable roll now and with the next Captain America film due in 2016, the next Thor film due in 2017, and the two part Avengers finale arriving in the two years after that there’s a whole lot more ground to cover. Let’s not forget the other Marvel films on the big and small screen that will surely play a part in future development deals.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon’s swan song in the director’s chair and he’s followed up an adrenaline blast of a first film with a layered and just as entertaining sequel that pushes ideas and characters forward. Make sure to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound (the 3D is optional…I wouldn’t think it’s a requirement) to truly max out your Avengers experience.

The Silver Bullet ~ Legend (2015)

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Synopsis: Identical twin gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray terrorize London during the 1950s and 1960s.

Release Date:  September 11, 2015

Thoughts:  Here in the U.S. we have our share of famous gangsters. From Al Capone to Lucky Luciano to John Dillinger, the roster of rouges leaves a colorful trail of crime that’s been brought to the big screen in a number of varied films. For UK audiences, mention The Kray Twins and the same sort of name recognition and interest will arise. A story already brought to the screen in 1989’s The Krays, in 2015 writer/director Brian Helgeland (42, L.A. Confidential) and star Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Child 44, The Dark Knight Rises) will give the organized crime twins new life. Despite a yawn inducing title, Hardy’s rising star should give this one a little extra boost.

The Silver Bullet ~ Irrational Man

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Synopsis: On a small town college campus, a philosophy professor in existential crisis gives his life new purpose when he enters into a relationship with his student.

Release Date:  July 24, 2015

Thoughts: As sure as blockbuster movies come out each summer, so does the latest offering from director Woody Allen (who last appeared onscreen in Fading Gigolo).  While Irrational Man doesn’t look as serious as Blue Jasmine or as frothy as Magic in the Moonlight, the modern-day comedic romance looks like an Allen vehicle through and through.  Starring new muse Emma Stone (Aloha, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, an actor long overdue with taking himself less seriously) it’s doubtful this will emerge as a new Allen classic but there’s enough witty banter and piqued interest from this trailer to please any Allen aficionado.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Visit (2015)

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Synopsis: A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents.

Release Date:  September 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s been rough going for director M. Night Shyamalan these past years.  The once-hot director went from being an Oscar nominated A-lister to a joke of an easy target after releasing wacky yarns that didn’t play as well as his earlier work like The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable.  I remember a time when the appearance of his name in the trailer would cause the audience to shriek…first with terror with first looks at The Village and later in laughter with The Happening.  It got to a point where his name wouldn’t be in any of the promotional materials because he had such a stigma following him around.  Shyamalan’s latest film employs the tired hand-held camera angle but part of me thinks this could be a nifty little horror morsel if Shyamalan is able to put a decent plot and solid scares ahead of any big twist he may be planning.  Cautiously optimistic about this one…

Movie Review ~ The Water Diviner

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Australian man travels to Turkey after the Battle of Gallipoli to try and locate his three missing sons.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Steve Bastoni, Ryan Corr, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz

Director: Russell Crowe

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: There’s a moment in Ron Howard’s 1995 space drama Apollo 13 where, in trying to find a solution to the problem the stranded astronauts are facing, NASA technicians dump boxes of equipment onto a table and one of them says “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” I mention this particular scene because it kept playing through my mind while watching director/star Russell Crowe’s tedious drama, The Water Diviner.

Poor Matt Villa. As the editor for this missed opportunity of a film I can imagine Crowe depositing the dailies on his desk and commanding Villa craft a movie out of Crowe’s lugubrious and bloviating   historical shoulda-been-better epic. It’s not like Villa couldn’t do it…this is the guy that brought some sense of order to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in 2013 so I can only place the blame squarely at Crowe’s hulking feet and a narrative-less script form two Andrews (Knight and Anastasios).

I’d purposely avoided watching any trailers for The Water Diviner because as of late movie previews in general seem to favor more spoilers than ever before but I was interested to see what Crowe would do with the true-ish story of a man from Down Under that travels to Turkey and the post-wartime shores of Gallipoli as he searches for his enlisted sons he believes are dead. There’s a good movie at the heart of The Water Diviner, which makes it doubly depressing that it’s such a clumsy and yawn-inducing affair.

Running under two hours but feeling three times as long, Crowe doesn’t bother with any kind of character introductions…which is all well and good until full understanding of the characters becomes a necessity to figure out what the hell is going on. Though the three sons play a pivotal role in the latter half of the film and it’s clear we’re supposed to feel some sort of fatherly bond that drives Crowe’s character to follow his quest, there’s precious little onscreen that gives us any indication why we should be invested in Crowe getting the answers he came for.

There’s a lot of sand and dust to trek through and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (an Oscar winner for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) captures the period setting nicely…until Crowe revs up the action and it appears Lesnie tied the camera to the end of a string and started lasso-ing it above the heads of the actors. Production design is generally spot-on, from Tess Schofield’s (The Sapphires) costumes to David Hirschfelder’s tonally observant score.

If only the script and performances had matched the art direction. Crowe (Noah, Man of Steel) never met a character he couldn’t grunt through but he seems particularly lost at sea here. Perhaps pulling double duty left his character development as an afterthought, but you’d be hard pressed to remember that this guy won an Oscar and has been nominated for two more. For a man that’s worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood and abroad, it’s truly amazing how little craft is displayed as both director and actor of The Water Diviner. This had the potential to be an epic drama but just winds up being epically boring.

That’s really the main problem with the film…it’s so surreally uninteresting that I was gob smacked to read that it won Australia’s equivalent of Best Picture (well, it tied with The Babadook) and netted a host of nominations. I chalk it up to hometown devotion for Crowe but it’s quite undeserved. I feel for talented actors like Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace), Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher), and an impressive Yilmaz Erdogan who are saddled with thankless roles. Kurylenko in particular should have just worn a sign around her neck that says “Obligatory Feisty Female Character Desisted to be a Random Love Interest in 5…4…3…2…1” for her cliché-ridden role.

The film is all over the map. One moment it’s like an Aussie spin on Saving Private Ryan and the next it’s Zero Dark Thirty Down Under before incredulously turning into a Casablanca no one asked for. Near the end of the film there’s a bonkers scene where Crowe teaches his would-be adversaries the rules of cricket in a rusty old train car minutes before a slaughter erupts and Crowe has only, you guessed it, a cricket mallet to defend himself. Then there’s the scene where Crowe magically locates a grave he couldn’t possibly know was there…sure he’s a water diviner (a gift shown in the first five minutes and never mentioned again) but now he’s a body diviner? Gulp. Next please.

A movie that thinks so highly of itself it doesn’t make any effort to explain, well, anything is one that is ultimately hard to swallow and should be discarded. So many things in The Water Diviner just happen “because” that it all begins to wash over you and renders you numb by the time the credits blessedly appear. I even hated the font used for the titles and subtitles…

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Synopsis: On the heels of the worldwide success of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is bringing together the two greatest Super Heroes of all time – Batman and Superman for the first time on the big screen.

Release Date:  March 25, 2016

Thoughts:  I still think 1979’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best all around “comic-book” origin movies to be made and I was more than willing to give director Zack Snyder’s reboot a fair chance.  After all, look what Christopher Nolan did with his reinvention of Batman in three films about the caped crusader.  Sadly, Superman’s return in 2013 was a glum bummer, and a movie that took way too long to come out (how can a new Star Wars movie be filmed and come out in a little over a year but Snyder takes almost three years for his meal to cook?).  Disappointments aside, the film made good on its franchise starter nature at the box office yet it’s a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided that the sequel should merge its flying superhero with The Dark Knight – the poor guy was enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Feeling the heat from Marvel’s unstoppable films, I’m sure that DC Comics was more than happy to bring their Justice League dreams to light…why else would this Superman sequel feature not only the Man of Steel and Batman but Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well?  I hope the film isn’t merely a bridge to a bigger idea, but from the looks of this impressive teaser Snyder may be borrowing a page from Nolan and going ultra-dark.

Movie Review ~ The Hunting Ground

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An expose of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.

Director: Kirby Dick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I believe the best kind of documentaries are the ones that expose an ongoing problem that may not be getting the media attention it deserves.  With so many of our headlines looking at the issues we face on foreign soil, there can be a lack of attention to the concerns that are right on our front doorstep. Director Kirby Dick has been a documentary filmmaker of acclaim for over three decades but especially in the last ten years he’s been shining a light on a diverse roster of subjects.

Receiving his first Oscar nomination for 2004’s Twist of Faith which focused on child abuse within the Catholic Church, Dick followed that up in 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, where he attempted to peel back the veil of secrecy surrounding the ratings board of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America.  Controversy surrounded 2009’s Outrage as it looked at the hypocrisy of Washington D.C.’s closeted gay politicians, and 2012’s Oscar-nominated The Invisible War detailed rape within the armed forces.

Now comes The Hunting Ground, a painful journey into the growing epidemic of rape on college campuses from sea to shining sea.  Interviewing dozens of survivors of sexual assault during their college experience, Dick goes further and suggests that many of these incidents are kept on the down low by college officials more interested in keeping the money flowing than guarding their student body.

As is the case with most of the work from this director, it’s pretty incendiary material meant to spark discussion.  Dick seems to be of the position that if he’s presenting the facts, it’s the onus of the individuals and collegiate organizations accused of sweeping reports of rape and sexual assault under the table to provide proof that he’s wrong.  Sadly, it seems clear that Dick and producer Amy Ziering have revealed a long-standing cover-up that’s remained unchallenged until now.

What makes this documentary so powerful and terrifying to watch is not the evidence that shows students have a better chance of being kicked out of school for cheating than raping a classmate but in the stories relayed by the victims themselves.  Mostly women (several men are interviewed but only briefly), it’s painful to hear their narratives of elation at being accepted into higher education turn into somber reflections of grief after being victimized not just by their attacker but by the school that should have protected them.

It’s a well-made documentary that has a lot of talking heads spouting facts and countless faces of survivors with stories to tell.  Dick devotes a nice portion of the film into following the efforts of two females that decided to take a stand and effect change within the collegiate system even if their administrators wouldn’t.  As they travel around and connect with other individuals in similar situations, their network of support grows.

A film that should be shown on all college campuses and especially to all incoming freshman, The Hunting Ground will hopefully be a call to action that a very real problem continues to plague the grounds of higher learning.

Movie Review ~ Seymour: An Introduction

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Meet Seymour Bernstein: a beloved pianist, teacher and true inspiration who shares eye-opening insights from an amazing life. Ethan Hawke helms this poignant guide to life.

Stars: Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke

Director: Ethan Hawke

Rated: PG

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This sensitive doc from Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) is a good example of how to treat your elders…listen, learn, let them talk.

Famed pianist Seymour Bernstein may not be a household name to most because he hasn’t performed in public for decades, but after a chance encounter with Bernstein at a dinner party the actor became interested in learning more about the life-long New Yorker that imparts his wisdom to his students, his friends, and his contemporaries.

At a trim 84 minutes it’s less a biopic and more of a discussion with biographical context. We hear about Bernstein’s first encounter with music when a piano is brought into his house, which up until that point didn’t even have a radio to listen to.  Over the years his talent became evident, with only his mother fully supporting the musical prodigy her son was becoming.  Growing stage fright kept Bernstein out of the public eye for years, only occasionally playing for anyone outside his small one room apartment just big enough for a piano and pull out bed.

Hawke clearly found a kinship is Bernstein as the actor relays his own burgeoning stage fright these past years.  Perhaps making a film on Bernstein’s life and capturing on film his sage words was a way to exorcise some of those demons that plague many a creative individual.  No matter what the reason, Hawke’s portrait of Bernstein is as delicate as Bernstein’s technique, a technique Hawke shows in several working sessions Bernstein has with his students.  Quick to correct his pupils but just as quick to praise them, his attention to the smallest detail provides great insight into what it takes to achieve his level of musical sophistication.

A treat of a film, if there’s one drawback it’s that there’s no true momentum to be had.  Yes, Bernstein’s an interesting character and I think I could have sat through his entire master class, but the final result is an abridged autobiography conveyed on film.  Still, it’s so short that you can’t help but pay rapt attention and think about the Seymour Bernsteins in your own life.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mr. Holmes

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Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.

Release Date:  July 17, 2015

Thoughts: Let’s get excited for this one, shall we?  Though Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) made a lovely Sherlock Holmes in two less than lovely big screen outings and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) has put his quirky stamp on the legendary detective via the BBC series, I’m quite interested to see Ian McKellan (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) give his take on an elderly Holmes.  McKellan re-teaming with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) is exciting enough but this early tease at July’s Mr. Holmes hints at a fine effort and I’m waiting with bated breath for the full trailer.

Movie Review ~ The Longest Ride

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The lives of a young couple intertwine with a much older man as he reflects back on a lost love while he’s trapped in an automobile crash.

Stars: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Alan Alda, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, Gloria Reuben, Lolita Davidovich

Director: George Tillman, Jr.

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Looking over the bibliography of author Nicholas Sparks, the pickings are getting mighty slim for studios hunting for titles to bring a little romance to their paying audiences.  After the (deserved) critical drubbing and box office failure of 2014’s ghastly The Best of Me (insert obligatory “worst” joke here) I was leery about jumping into another Sparks suds-a-thon even though the preview had me more interested that I cared to admit.  Sadly, The Longest Ride is just another run-of-the-mill page to screen adaptation from the Sparks roster of tear-jerking tales.

As I mentioned in my review of 2012’s The Lucky One, there is a clear formula at play whenever you settle in for a Sparks saga and The Longest Ride is no different.  As in previous films, the women are lithe in limb and the men are smoldering hunks who work manly jobs and have macho hobbies.  There’s the requisite scene of the lovers running off a dock, leaping into a body of water in which they can embrace…and in The Longest Ride it actually happens more than once.  Throw in an old geezer with a life lesson to teach, the threat of injury that could put a halt to the love affair, and a soundtrack of easy listening radio friendly country tunes and the menu is complete.  It’s a pre-packaged TV dinner of a meal, ultimately overbaked.

I wish I could say that it’s strictly the fault of the source material on which screenwriter Craig Bolotin based his sappy adaptation but unfortunately the acting adds another uneven layer to the mix.  While I think Britt Robertson (Cake) will fare better sharing the screen with George Clooney in May’s highly anticipated Tomorrowland, here she struggles with a role she doesn’t feel right for.  Playing Sophia, a college senior, onscreen she reads like a high school junior making her romance with bull rider Luke (Scott Eastwood) hard to swallow.  Arguably saddled with the laziest developed character in the film, Robertson spends most of the film relying on her expressive face rather than her heart.

Robertson has some chemistry with Eastwood (Texas Chainsaw 3D) but with the aforementioned issue with age their passionate scenes wind up falling flat.  Showing more flesh than I thought possible for a PG-13 movie (Robertson’s breasts are seen several times and Eastwood bares his backside), their couplings aren’t worth the tortuous build-up.

The whole film I had trouble shaking how much Eastwood looks like his father but the similarities end there.  The elder Eastwood favors a less is more approach but the younger Eastwood never finds a balance of true subtlety in his portrayal of a one-time rodeo star battling personal demons while struggling to reclaim his career.  In fact, Eastwood may have more connection to a ferocious bull that haunts him than anyone else in the film.

The story of the bull rider and his gal probably would have been enough to satiate audiences eager to fall in love with another Sparks adaptation but there’s an entirely other story inserted as flashbacks and if there’s one thing to recommend about The Longest Ride, it’s this secondary tale.

After saving an elderly man (Alan Alda, Wanderlust) that veered off the road in a rainstorm, Luke and Sophia visit him often enough as he recuperates to hear him recount the time he spent with the love of his life.  Played by two descendants of true Hollywood royalty, Jack Huston (American Hustle, grandson of acclaimed director John Huston) and Oona Chaplin (What If, granddaughter of Charlie) make for an appealing pair and, like the recent Woman in Gold, I found myself much more engaged by what happened in the past than anything that was going on in the present.

Director George Tillman, Jr makes the flashbacks look sharp and lovely, a nice contrast to the almost dewy quality of the scenes involving Luke and Sophia.  As pleasant as it all looks, there’s no getting away from the fact that neither story is particularly engaging and at 139 minutes (this is the longest Sparks adaptation to date) it starts to feel protracted before it’s even half over.  I think Tillman could easily have lost several Luke/Sophia scenes and given the film a better pace without sacrificing any of the drama that clutters up the final 1/3 of the movie.  As is typical with Sparks films, there’s a series of unbelievable contrivances introduced less because they make sense but more because they get our characters where they need to be faster.

This is the tenth film adapted from a Sparks bestseller (I do find it odd that his other novels with more supernatural twists haven’t made it to the silver screen yet) and by this point you’re either a Sparks supporter or you aren’t.  The Longest Ride isn’t the worst effort nor can it (or should it) be included among the best.