Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” directed by Joss Whedon, is that it does not attempt to do anything particularly special. It drifts lazily from one action scene to another—sandwiched by so-called character development with lines of dialogue so television-like that at times I wondered if I was watching a first cut of the film rather than a final one—and not one is so well-choreographed that the sequence is etched in our brains well after the movie is over. Clearly, it is a sequel not worthy of the original.
Successfully acquiring Loki’s scepter, risk-taking Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and a more reluctant Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) decide to use the scepter’s gem to complete a defense program called Ultron that can potentially protect the entire planet from otherworldly invaders. But the unknown technology proves highly dangerous when Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes sentient. Its goal: To achieve world peace by destroying mankind.
Ultron is a most underwhelming villain. Although the visual effects that make the artificial intelligence appear sinister are quite a marvel, there is nothing complex about the antagonist aside from the contradiction of his endgame. As a sentient machine, he does not accomplish anything big or terrifying either; it all feels small in scope—too small for the bar that the predecessor had set up. For instance, in the beginning there is talk about the rogue AI possibly being capable of activating nuclear weapons on a whim and yet by the third act our heroes only deal with one bomb. It might have worked if the final battle commanded so much suspense and tension, we forget that Ultron has the capacity to cause more destruction. Instead, not once are the Avengers thrusted into any real, convincing danger. Thus, Ultron comes across as a forgettable villain-of-the-week.
The romantic connection between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk is a good idea but it is not executed in such a way that we want to invest deeply in what they share. These are two of the more interesting characters in the group—the former is in control but heavily scarred by her past and the latter finds himself fighting an every day fear of being out of control—but their exchanges are reduced to soppy, googly-eyed bore. Instead of communicating true humanity underneath their roles as mankind’s protectors, the dialogue sounds very scripted, lines that must be uttered for the camera.
However, the film is not without a sense humor which almost always works, whether it be our superheroes just hanging out in Stark’s multimillion-dollar loft or out there in the field where things go boom! The wit and the snark unique to each character are exercised with confidence. What I will remember from the movie are not the scenes where the Avengers engage in physical battle but the battle of words and looks they give one another once in a while because each of them, deep down, is convinced that he is that special flavor in the group. The script has a way of consistently making self-importance charming—which is difficult to do.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a disappointment as an action film. Specifically, it fails to command imaginative or creative sequences that force us to undergo a rollercoaster of emotions. The emotions that we do experience are superficial, forgotten after two or three scenes. Lastly, perhaps the picture does not engage thoroughly because not one character comes across as expendable. Future writers and filmmakers of the franchise ought to keep in mind that there is excitement in danger while there is passivity in safety. It neglects to play with our expectations so the final product is not by any means compelling.
Odd Thomas (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), a short order cook, sees dead people. Only two people know of his abilities: his girlfriend, Stormy (Addison Timlin), and Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who has grown to trust Odd for his knack for finding clues and tracking bad guys. Lately, however, creatures called the Bodach, invisible to those who lack the special sight, have begun to follow residents of Pico Mundo. These shadow-like creatures crave the scent of people who are about to die. Odd becomes convinced that someone is planning to execute a mass killing.
“Odd Thomas,” based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, is a fast-paced mystery-thriller but despite its very hip and modern embellishments, from the rapid cuts and editing meant to exude cool to the quirkiness of the dialogue between Odd and the girl with whom he thinks he is meant to be with forever, it never moves beyond mild entertainment. The mystery lacks a level of urgency despite the possibility of hundreds of people being killed and so the investigation is not all that interesting. Some of the quirkiness gets in the way of building a forward momentum and thus lacking the building blocks for suspense.
Yelchin and Timlin create a cute screen couple presence but Stephen Sommers, the person in charge of shaping the screenplay and directing, seems to forget that this is not a romance picture. After finding just about every piece of the puzzle, Odd and Stormy must engage in either a light banter or expressing how they care for one another—on the phone or in person. These two are attached to the hip and it does not work. So, it quickly becomes a challenge to enjoy the film as a supernatural detective story.
There is far too much visual effects. A lot of it do not look first-rate—which is not a problem if the concept or story is strong enough to keep us engaged. Here, since the tone is a mixture of action-adventure, mystery, and comedy, adding the visuals on top of an already busy plot makes the picture look cheap or trying too hard to be impressive. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better if Odd were the only one who was able to see the Bodach. This way, it might have inspired us to imagine how these creatures look. Seeing them leaves nothing to the imagination. I did not find them scary.
Standout performances include Dafoe and Yelchin. If the screenplay had been sharper, it would have placed the father-son dynamic between Porter and Odd front and center. To me, the partnership between the cop and his aide is the heart of the picture because when Porter’s life ends up in grave danger, I found myself not wanting to miss a blink. I wish I can say the same about Stormy. She is sweet and has some nice lines but there is no depth to her.
The problem with “Odd Thomas” is that it feels too much like a TV show that can likely thrive on the CW—maybe the WB when their standards were different. Take a two-hour pilot episode and a two-part season finale of a solid—but not impressive—show in its first year and this is the result. Quite frankly, the movie reminded me of the first season of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Its knees may be wobbly but the potential is just waiting to be let out of the box.
The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.
Toy Story (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A cowboy toy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) felt like he was going to be replaced as Andy’s favorite toy when Andy (John Morris) received a spaceman toy named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) for his birthday. Out of jealousy, Woody tried to get rid of Buzz and the two, after a series of adventures, ended up right next door–where another boy named Sid (Erik von Detten) lived and had a penchant for ordering explosives and blowing up his toys to smithereens. Buzz and Woody then had to work together in order to escape and return to Andy’s care before his family finished packing to move to another house. It is no stranger that Pixar’s first animated film was an international success because it was able to deliver state-of-the-art animation without sacrificing Indiana Jones-like adventure and witty sense of humor. It also had a real sense of danger denoted in scenes where Woody and Buzz had to face the neighbor’s toys after Sid performed cruel surgeries on them. At the same time, there were lessons in scary and dangerous scenes, especially for kids, such as not judging something solely based on its appearance and how creativity and imagination can triumph over the most seemingly insurmountable challenges. There were even lessons about empathy and taking care of the things we own. The picture really was multidimensional in terms of story and the meanings we could extract from the visuals and the script. Even though the characters’ faces looked more wooden and had sharper angles compared to its sequels, “Toy Story,” directed by John Lasseter, is something special because each character had a memorable characteristic and was able to contribute something crucial to the project. Some stand-out scenes include Woody and Buzz meeting green aliens who believed that if they were chosen by The Claw, they would go to a better place, when post-surgery toys acted like zombies in order to teach Sid a lesson, and when Woody and Buzz had to chase Andy’s car in which failure meant losing their friend forever. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, “Toy Story” proved that animation was not just for children as long as the story had an element of uniqueness that the audiences could invest in. And just like classic films, animated movies could also be timeless not just in terms of visuals but the universal emotions we couldn’t help but feel every time we would watch them.