Welcome to The Mundane Adventures of a Fangirl

I consider myself a Fangirl. What does that mean, you ask? A "fanboy" in the most common understanding is a hardcore fan of 'genre' based entertainment in particular. In my case - science-fiction and comic book based movies and television. Because I'm a chick - it's fangirl, not fanboy. There you have it! I am a big movie fan, however, not necessarily a 'film' fan. And now - I have the forum to present my opinions to the public! These will mainly be movie reviews -that will always be my opinion - repeat OPINION. Just what I think, and in no way do I present my opinion as fact. I hope you enjoy and maybe it will help you decide what to see at the movie theater this weekend!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (PG13 – 115 minutes)

When Glee premiered on TV, it reminded the world that school-group acapella singing was a thing.   Acapella groups have been a mainstay of college campuses for years, and the competitions are always intense.  That show brought that into a high school setting and added high school drama to it; lots of drama.  So much drama, in fact, that I stopped watching halfway through season 2.  In 2012, a little movie called Pitch Perfect brought the college acapella competitions to the big screen in a hilarious comedy with some very entertaining numbers and several hugely non-entertaining vomit scenes. 

It was co-written by Elizabeth Banks who cameoed as one of the acapella competition commentators along with John Michael Higgins (one of Christopher Guest’s improv geniuses).  The movie was a sleeper hit and my biggest pleasant surprise of 2012.  It was really lighthearted and fun, and was a great departure from the summer blockbuster movie madness.  It easily made back its modest budget, which enabled a sequel and Banks decided to try her hand at directing it.

In Pitch Perfect 2, we catch up with the Barden Bellas, who have spent the last three years dominating the college acapella circuit.  They’ve been so dominant, that they have started to ‘lose their sound’ and become more wrapped up in the ‘production’ of the performances rather than the actual singing - they're using pyrotechnics and acrobatics.  As they are performing in front of the president, they have a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and Amy accidentally flashes the crowd her ‘down under’ area – she’s Australian, get it? 

This results in general outrage in the acapella community and the acapella governing body bans the Bellas from competitions - oh no!  What will they do!?!  Well, they promptly find a loophole, and learn they can go to the ‘world championships’ which are held in Copenhagen.  Meanwhile, a legacy Bella (her mother was in the Bellas while she was at Barden) joins the group; Beca (our hero from the first movie) is struggling with her internship at a recording studio while juggling her relationship with Jesse (a member of the Barden Treblemakers);  Amy and Bumper continue their flirtation; the Bellas encounter Das Sound Machine (a German acapella powerhouse group); and the Bellas go on a retreat to re-find their sound – you know, general comedy hijinks.  My favorite of those hijinks is the underground acapella competition hosted by an eccentric millionaire - oh, you did hear me right.  It is equally as amazing as you think it is.  I loved the cameos in that sequence - particularly the Packers, but also Bumper's group of all-stars.  

For Elizabeth Banks’s directorial debut, the movie is done really well.  The intercuts between competitions and commentators are some of the best bits, and the work towards the world competition is really entertaining.  Banks manages to cram even more fun into this sequel, and keep all the characters from the first movie involved.  As with the first one, the most fun in this movie is watching the group work together despite the quirks of the members.

  • Anna Kendrick is once again game to take the lead as Beca – now nearing the end of her college career and anxious to start her ‘real’ life.  She thinks she’s ready to leave the Bellas behind, but slowly starts to learn that she will miss them terribly.  Kendrick is insanely talented, and seems to only be getting better as she gets older.  She has more of an ease as Beca in this movie than she did in the first one – where Beca’s angst felt a little forced.  She’s really wonderful, especially all of her improv-ed retorts to the German taunting.

  • Rebel Wilson absolutely stole the first movie, mainly because no one was ready for Rebel Wilson at that point.  Now that we are familiar with her, I was expecting her in this movie, so Fat Amy was less of a scene stealer than she was before.  I still enjoy her off-handed one-liners, and she comes off as genuinely wacky.  I did enjoy that she blew off Bumper, only to realize that she was in love with him, then the scene of her paddleboarding to him while singing just gets funnier as it goes on.

  • Hailee Steinfeld is the new addition to this movie as Emily, the legacy Bella.  She’s wonderfully awkward and really entertaining.  I had seen her in True Grit prior to this, and so I knew she was talented at drama, but she was also very successful in this comedy.  Emily so badly wants to succeed as a Bella but is also about writing her own songs – which shocks the acapella world, because they are all about covers. 

  • Brittany Snow again plays Chloe, and she has less to do in this movie than she did in the first – basically she is leading the Bellas, and is just there to try to keep everyone together.  She gets upset with Beca for hiding the internship from her, just to provide a little in-house drama.

  • Skylar Astin plays Jesse, and also has less to do in this movie than in the first one.  Remember in the first one, he had to attempt to get Beca to like movies (all movies).  In this one, he’s reduced to supportive boyfriend and lead of the Treblemakers.  In a way, that’s good, because it makes way for…

  • …Ben Platt as Benji.  He was the weird magician/Star Wars kid in the first movie, but here, he’s developed into a leading member of the Treblemakers, and gets to spend some time really awkwardly flirting with Emily – really awkwardly.  He actually had to take time out from playing in the Book of Mormon on Broadway to film this movie.

  • Adam DeVine reprises his role of Bumper – which is good, because he was so funny in the first movie, but clearly left the Treblemakers during that movie.  Here – he’s back as a security guard.  Like I said, the scene between he and Wilson as Amy sings her love to Bumper is ridiculous and hilarious.  Then they just proceed to roll all over the ground together.

  • The absolutely wonderful Katey Sagal plays Emily’s mom Katherine, who used to be a Bella.  She’s so good in so much, and it was nice to see her in this.  I saw the end result of her involvement coming a long way off, but it didn’t matter, it was still really moving and wonderful!

  • Anna Camp has a brief cameo as recently graduated Bella Aubrey.  She is now running the motivational camp that the Bellas visit to retrieve their sound, finding that her life’s calling was to boss people around.

  • Hana Mae Lee again plays Lilly – the super quiet Bella who just says really bizarre things under her breath.  I was happy that was less used in this movie than it was in the first.  It got really weird there, and here, it goes back to being funny.  More funny-weird than funny-haha, but still – it’s better than the first.

  • Songwriter Ester Dean again plays Cynthia Rose who is used to cover almost all the minority demographics - at her own admission. 

  • Chrissie Fit plays a member of the Bellas who seems to have been there a while, but was not in the first one – an immigrant from a different country (Guatemala, maybe?  That’s not a guess, that’s how it’s presented in the movie).  She’s also big into gymnastics.  Okay – that’s weird.

  • The two new cast members who steal a bit of the movie are Danish Actress Brigitte Hjort Sorensen and German DJ/comedian/YouTube star Flula Borg as the lead members of Das Sound Machine.  They are really funny, and I did enjoy the stand offs between them the Bellas trading insults back and forth. 

  • One of the best parts of this is the Green Bay Packers appearing as an acapella group in a mysterious underground acapella competition that the Bellas get invited to.  Nevermind the questions that arise when you think about underground acapella competitions, just go with it.  The Packers were huge fans of the original, and would sing all the time in the locker room – and were thrilled to get to be in the sequel. 

  • The second best part of this movie is the appearance of Keegan Michael Key (the Key half of Key and Peele) as the boss of Beca’s recording studio internship.  He’s just fantastic – and mostly unscripted, and I just wanted to see outtakes of him berating his employee/nephew Dax, “Say one more hipster thing, Dax….”
  • The very best part of this movie is the same as the very best part of the original, and that is Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as the Acapella competition commentators.  Just about everything they say is unscripted and hilarious; and I really wanted outtakes of the two of them riffing on the performances.

I have to say – I really loved this one more than the original.  I felt like this one was a little more silly, had more fun performances, and really went for it.  Also – so much less vomiting than the original.  The movie earned $70 million in its opening weekend, which was already more than the entire first film’s domestic theatrical run of $65 million.  I suppose they could go on a do a third, with Emily at the head of a new group of Bellas, but this one was fantastic, and I’d be happy with ending the series here – I’m not sure how they would top it!

8 out of 10 – super fun.  Lost points for no outtakes over the end credits.  Hey comedy movies – all we want is outtakes over the credits!!  Gained points for the fun cameos by real Acapella groups during the competition at the end (which was actually filmed in Baton Rouge – not Copenhagen) including Pentatonix – who I love!  Lost points for Beca not telling her fellow Bellas about her internship, for no real reason other than to cause drama.  Gained points for Beca admitting that she still didn’t know between Bellas Ashley and Jessica which was which – and then extra bonus points for those two responding at the same time, “I’m Jessica!”  So is there no Ashley?  Was there never an Ashley?

Bonus Video 1: Pentatonix being awesome.  If you are not already on the Pentatonix bandwagon --- get on it.  Usually their covers sound better than the originals!  Go ahead and take some time to fall into a Pentatonix YouTube hole.

Bonus Video 2: Reggie Watts being awesome with the cast.

Bonus Video 3: Cast interviews:

Monday, May 18, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max Fury Road (R – 120 minutes)

In 1979 – Australian writer-director George Miller released Mad Max, a dystopian action film centered around a hero named Max, who was a ‘Main Force Patrol’ pursuit man.  It was hugely profitable, mainly because it was made for almost no money.  Basically Max is trying to enforce what little is left of the law in a dystopian Australian future.  Things go wrong, his family is killed – and he goes mad. 

The movie was really well received, but had very little release here in the US.  The second Mad Max movie is actually the one that Americans are more familiar with – The Road Warrior, from 1985.  In this outing, a community of settlers is attempting to fend off roving marauders who are looking for fuel.  Max meets the Gyro captain, attempts to help, battles Lord Humungus, and rediscovers his humanity while doing so.   This one was actually better received than the first movie.  It had very little dialogue and was really more about the visuals.

In the third outing, Mad Max goes Beyond the Thunderdome and battles Tina Turner.  Seriously – that Tina Turner.  That is no stranger than the fact that Wilt Chamberlain was in Conan the Destroyer…seriously, that Wilt Chamberlain.  In any case, 15 years have passed since the Road Warrior, and Max is traveling across the desert when he is attacked.  Pursuing his attackers, Max arrives at Bartertown, and ends up in the Thunderdome.  He then gets into a dispute with Aunty Entity and Master Blaster – eventually helping to save a group of random children and teens in the desert. 

Since all of these were written and directed by George Miller (he also did Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil, Babe: Pig in the City, and both Happy Feet movies), it makes sense that he would write and direct this newest entry into the franchise, that really, isn't much of a Mad Max movie (and I love that about it).

Since Max is a lone warrior who seems to begin and end each movie by wandering the desert, more focused on self-survival thank anything else – it makes sense that this movie starts with Max alone in the desert – with his car, bemoaning his own craziness and haunted by images of what could be his daughter or some other small girl.  

He encounters a roving band of War Boys, and they capture him.  The War Boys are a crazed army of the tyrannical cult leader Immortan Joe.  Max is determined to be a universal blood donor, and so is quickly strung up to be used as a ‘blood bag’ for a recovering War Boy named Nux.  Joe is keeping a ton of people under his thumb by rationing out water in small amounts, and promising more.  He is sending out one of his Imperators – Imperator Furiosa – on a fuel run down the Fury Road in her giant war-rig gas truck to the nearby Gas Town. 

Unbeknownst to Joe, Furiosa has taken Joe’s five prized ‘breeders’/wives.  At this point I will mention the wives’ names, because they are all insane, and not really mentioned in the movie that much:  Angharad, Capable, Cheedo, Toast, and the Dag.  Incidentally all the characters have insane names in all these Mad Max movies. 

As soon as Furiosa drives off course to try to get the women to safety, Joe realizes what has happened, and sends his army of War Boys after her.  Nux decides to join, strapping Max (as his blood bag) to the top of his car.  The armies from Gas Town, and the nearby Bullet Farm also join the fray.  Eventually Max gets free – accidentally joins Furiosa, accidentally helps to convert Nux to their cause, and helps to save the women (mostly on purpose) but only after a huge wind/sand storm with sand tornados; battling another army of cliff bikers despite the three on their tail; and negotiating a swampy-mud pit type area.  At the end, he wanders off into the desert again. 

This movie looks amazing.  They shot most of it in Namibia, so the desert is real.   Miller himself has described the movie as “almost as a western on wheels”.  This is fairly accurate.  The majority of the action is all practical with almost no CGI effects.  In fact, some of the stunt performers are Cirque du Soleil performers and Olympic athletes.  The story is very simple, and is non-stop action from the word go.  I mentioned that Avengers: Age of Ultron felt like a lot of action with five major action pieces.  Fury Road seems to be one long, non-stop action set piece.  Well, no – there is one moment where some characters sit and stare at the stars, so let’s go with two long non-stop action set pieces.  Following the guidelines of the originals, there is very little dialogue and the movie is mostly visuals – which are amazing.  What helps those visuals are talented actors who can do a lot with non-verbals.

  • It was a bit strange that Tom Hardy starts this movie in a mask, since the last major movie he did was Dark Knight Rises – which was him in a mask the whole time.  At least this time he has no dialogue, so there’s no worry that you cannot understand him.  He does a lot of grunting and pointing and his eyes do a great job of conveying the ‘crazy’.  He's a bit flat, and has very little to do, and that's fine, since this really isn't his movie.

  • My favorite thing about this movie is that really, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is the hero, Max just happens to be in the movie along for the ride (literally and figuratively).  In fact, Miller's proposed sequel would be called Mad Max: Furiosa - which is strange, because that could be the name of this movie.  Furiosa is an incredible character, on a very simple and straightforward level.  She steals the women to free them, and enlists Max’s help only when she thinks that would work out to their advantage.  She is attempting to get them to the ‘green place’ of her youth, and when she realizes that will not work – she adjusts to a new plan, pushing to find a safe place for the women to start over.  She’s visually striking, from the buzz cut to the robot arm to the face makeup to the brutal fighting and driving skills.  Theron is amazing in this movie, she owns it, she rocks it, she steals the whole thing, and I could not have been more impressed with her.  Finally another awesome action movie with a female lead!  

  • Nicholas Hoult plays Nux, and while there’s a whole lot about the War Boys that makes no sense (is that chrome spray they are putting over their mouths when they are preparing to be ‘witnessed’?  And is that why their mouths are so weird?  And what is with the half-life thing?  And why are they so pale?), what does make sense is that Hoult is completely over-the-top crazy in the best possible way.  I would not have believed he was capable of this level of insanity, but he does a great job.  Yes, he changes sides pretty quickly, but I think it made sense for the character.

  • Nugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe.  He was born in India, moved to Australia, and started working as an actor.  One of his early roles was as ToeCutter in the first Mad Max movie.  In this movie, his character design, makeup, and practical effects do most of the work for him, but where he is amazing is again the eyes, and the non-verbal acting.

  • Josh Helman plays Slit – another War Boy who seems to be Nux’s friend or maybe driving partner?  Or competition?  I don’t really know, the War Boys are big time weird.

  • Nathan Jones (yes, that Nathan Jones), plays Rictus Erectus.  One of Immortan Joe’s not-quite-right children (see, that’s why he wants the healthy breeders – to have healthy children, because the ones he has are way off in one way or another).  Nathan Jones served 16 years in Boggo Road Gaol (prison) in Australia for several armed robberies.  While inside, he developed into quite the strongman competitor and upon his release, competed and won many strongman competitions.  He also had a short WWE career.   He was also in the movie Troy (he’s the giant dude that Brad Pitt swiftly defeats in the beginning).  His job in this is to be crazy and big, which he excels at.

  • Zoe Kravitz (yes, Lenny and Lisa Bonet’s daughter) plays one of the wives, Toast the Knowing.  She seems to be one of the more capable of the wives, and can handle herself while on the run.

  • Rosie Huntington-Whitely was surprisingly very good as favorite wife, The Splendid Angharad.  She’s the one who really wants to get away from Joe, and does her best to help Furiosa with the others.

  • Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter) plays Capable, the wife with the red hair who develops a bit of a thing with Nux. 

  • Abbey Lee plays the blond wife, The Dag, who doesn’t have much of a personality on her own.

  • Courtney Easton plays the fifth wife, Cheedo the Fragile, who has the dark hair and for a bit considers running back to Joe – surely he will forgive them for running away and take care of them again, right?

  • John Howard plays the People Eater, who seems to be the man running Gas Town and Richard Carter plays The Bullet Farmer – who (surprise) runs the Bullet Farm.  They both join in Immortan Joe’s quest to bring back his wives, but neither of them seem all that thrilled about helping.

Overall the movie is completely insane.  It’s getting very high reviews, and I am curious to see how it does over the rest of the summer.  It’s not better than Avengers, and it surely does not have the crossover appeal of that movie.  Everyone can enjoy Avengers, but this is definitely a hard R, and not for kids.  The movie feels like the old Mad Max movies, but is so much more visually stunning due to the high-res cameras and fantastic action sequences.  I love a big budget thriller with tons of CGI – but there is definitely something to be said for watching several real crazy big rigs and pieced together cars race through a desert with insane people hanging off of them.  Once you see the giant vehicle, made of speakers – with four drummers on the back and one red pajama-wearing electric guitar-playing face-mask sporting grotesque on it, and you can just go with that…you’re all set to sit back and enjoy this mad ride.  Oh, one more thing, that guitar spouts fire when he plays it, because of course it does.

8 out of 10 – Bonus points for the guitar guy…the first time you see him he makes no sense, but then you find yourself hoping he’ll show up again.  Lost points for the one of Joe’s kids that stays back at his citadel and looks through the telescope.  Gained points for the tribe that Furiosa is heading for, the Vulvanians, being badass and awesome.  Gained all the points for Furiosa.  Also - Gained points for the use of fantastic stunt performers as well as Cirque du Soleil artists for amazing sequences.

Bonus Video 1:  George Miller’s Witches of Eastwick.  I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that the director of Mad Max was the same guy who did this, but it does explain some of the more hard to watch scenes…

Bonus Video 2: Aeon Flux, while this movie wasn't good, Charlize Theron was good in it. 

Bonus Video 3:  Cast Interviews:

Monday, May 11, 2015

Retro Movie Review: Strictly Ballroom (1992 – PG – 94 minutes)

Since Maggie is apparently a limited release, and did not open here this weekend, I decided to go back and review a movie that I reference in dance class all the time.

Chances are you are very familiar with Baz Luhrmann – even if you don’t know it.  He’s an Australian director who was born in New South Wales in 1962.  His parents did Ballroom Dancing competitions and got him started in ballroom very early.  Once he started writing and directing movies, he carried the passion for ballroom and theatricality into the movies.  His first movie was Strictly Ballroom in 1992.  The two follow-up pieces (both made with noticeably more money) were Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001).  Together, these three movies are called the Red Curtain Trilogy, which Luhrmann describes as a “theatricalized cinematic” form – a sort of half play/half movie item.   He was then going to do a trilogy of historical epics with Alexander the Great being the first, however, that got dropped after Oliver Stone’s Alexander came out and bombed.  He did do the historical epic Australia (2008), a lot of short films, and The Great Gastby (2013). 

I enjoy all of the Red Curtain Trilogy, but Strictly Ballroom has always been my favorite.  I have always loved watching ballroom dance, and this movie has a lot to do with why the Paso Doble is my favorite ballroom style.  Here's one of the best I have ever seen, choreographed by Derek Hough.  Essentially, the Paso is an aggressive, flamenco, Spanish influenced style where the man represents a matador, and the woman his cape.

The movie Strictly Ballroom was released in 1992, and is itself is based on a play set up by Luhrmann and fellow students at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney.  The play was eventually seen by Ted Albert (an Australian music executive) who loved it so much he helped create the film production company M&A Productions and made an offer to Luhrmann to turn the play into a movie. 

The story focuses on young Scott Hastings – a rising star in the Australian Ballroom circuit.  He’s on his way to winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix dancing Championship, but in order to win over the conservative judges, you have to keep it very strictly ballroom – old school steps in the classic style.  Scott feels himself pushed to keep trying more flashy, modern moves and work them in with the classic steps.  If you’re a watcher of Dancing with the Stars – this sounds familiar. Head Judge Len Goodman always wants classical, pure dancing, and some of the pros (I’m looking sideways at you, Mark Balas) like to throw it more modern, contemporary moves. 

During a preliminary competition, Scott and his partner Liz are wining, but then Scott breaks out some new moves, and they lose the competition.  Liz promptly ditches Scott for the champion Ken Railings as her new partner, nevermind that he’s a drunk.  Incidentally, the way this happens is one of the most hilarious things in any movie, ever “Pam Short’s just broke both her legs and I want to dance with you!”  Scott then auditions new partners at his parents’ studio with his coach Les, where his mother Shirley teaches ballroom, and his father Doug handles maintenance.  

The auditions are going poorly when Scott finally notices Fran, a frumpy beginning dancer at the studio.  She starts to show him some Paso Doble steps she learned from her family, and Scott is quickly taken by the flamenco flair in her steps.  He begins to secretly practice with Fran in the hopes of partnering with her at the Pan-Pacifics to do more modern moves, while continuing to run auditions with everyone else to show that he is looking for a traditional partner.  

As the secret rehearsals progress, Fran becomes more and more confident and her inner beauty begins to show through her ‘ugly duckling’ exterior.  She brings Scott back to meet her Spanish father and grandmother who apparently spend their time at a gypsy-style camp doing paso doble and flamenco dancing.  He sees that the Spanish dance is in her blood and they grow even closer – which throws some romance into the mix – because after all, it’s a romantic comedy.

Scott is eventually blindsided by Barry Fife, the president of the dance Federation, and his toupee, who tells him that his father is such a meek and broken man because he and Scott’s mother lost the Pan-Pacifics due to Doug wanting to do crazy, unorthodox steps.  Scott feels guilty and decides to partner with Liz again, since Ken has decided to partner with Tina Sparkles (“Tina Sparkles!”).  

Fran is heartbroken, but goes to the competition anyway, to enter in the beginner contest.  Scott’s friends overhear Barry promising Ken and Tina that they will win, no matter what.  They quickly tell Les, Scott’s coach, and he confronts Barry.  Meanwhile, Doug finally tells Scott the truth – that he had always wanted to do the new, unorthodox steps, but that Shirley, Les, and Barry all talked him out of it…and they still lost the competition.  After hearing this, Scott realizes he needs to dance his steps with Fran and immediately goes to find her.  As they take the floor, Barry cuts their music and disqualifies them, but the audience claps for them so that they can dance anyway.  They completely win over the crowd, and kiss as the entire audience starts dancing – finally realizing that it was always about the dance, and not about the competition.

The movie shows the beginnings of what will become Luhrmann’s typical style.  It is completely over-the-top and at times feels like a full-frontal assault of visual stimulus.  The first time I saw Moulin Rouge in the theatre – the opening number made me nauseous because of the excessive amounts of light, color, and sound.   Luhrmann does like it big.  The story is silly, and most of the characters are ridiculous, but it’s put together in a really fun way that draws the audience in.  In terms of the cast, it’s all Australians.   Paul Mercurio is one of the two members actors I remember seeing in other movies.  Although, the other movie I saw him in is East of Eden, which was horrible – so maybe that shouldn’t count?  The other one is Gia Carides as Liz, she played the sister in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. 

Overall, the movie is silly and charming, and certainly a fun bit of entertainment.  When it was released in 1992 in Australia, it was many awards both there and in the UK.  In fact, the show Strictly Come Dancing (which is Dancing with the Stars here) took its name from the movie.  Here in the US, it’s more of a cult hit, but chances are if you encounter someone who has seen it – they love it.

9 out of 10 – I really love this movie, and it’s my favorite Baz Luhrmann movie.  Probably because it happened before he decided Leonardo diCaprio was his muse.  Can you imagine what an Alexander the Great movie with Leo starring directed by Lurhmann would have looked like?  Absolutely insane!

Bonus Video 1:  Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby – I never saw this, I’m still holding a grudge about having to read this book in school. 

Bonus Video 2:  Romeo + Juliet – Amazing in that it used the Shakespeare word for word, but a modern setting.  And the reason I always refer to that one dude as Benvolio, even though I’m sure that actor has a real name (it’s Dash Mihok).

Bonus Video 3:  Moulin Rouge!  Just complete visual overstimulation in the best possible way.  Plus – singing Ewan McGregor!  Downside – singing Nicole Kidman!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers Age Of Ultron (PG13 – 141 minutes)

The Avengers first appeared in Marvel comics in 1963, created by Stan lee and Jack Kirby.  The original lineup was Iron Man, Ant Man, Wasp, Thor, and Hulk.  Once Captain America was discovered trapped in ice in issue 4 – he joined them.  The rotating roster is the trademark of the Avengers, with virtually everyone from the Marvel Universe having been an Avenger at one time or another.  The idea is that they join together with the unifying “Avengers, Assemble!” to battle any evil that is too great for one hero to tackle.

In 2012 – The first Avengers movie ended Marvel Cinematic Universe phase 1, and moved us into MCU Phase 2 – which includes Iron Man 3 (May 2013), Thor 2 (November 2013), Captain America 2 (April 2014), and Guardians of the Galaxy (November 2014).  These all rolled perfectly right into Avengers 2 – Age of Ultron.

If you’re not watching Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Tuesday nights on ABC, then you may find the opening of this movie slightly jarring.  On MAOS, Coulson and team have been tracking and battling Dr. List and the remnants of Hydra while Hydra has been experimenting on people attempting to make their own version of Inhumans (people with powers who seem to be enhanced due to alien DNA) and end up making Enhanced folks (people with powers who are enhanced due to genetic experimentation).  Coulson and team finally locate where Loki’s spear from the first Avengers movie has been taken (remember, SHIELD had it at the end of Avengers, but then in Winter Soldier, SHIELD fell and was revealed to be infiltrated by Hydra, so they have had the Spear since then).  Coulson calls Maria Hill, and tells her to send in the Avengers to Baron Strucker’s stronghold in the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia (which I’m sure borders on Latveria) to get back the spear and shut down Hydra for good. 

This movie picks up right where that episode ends, as we are immediately plunged into a battle as the Avengers are attempting to take the Hydra stronghold where Strucker is holed up with List and the spear.  List takes off with the weapons, as “the Twins” (Stucker’s enhanced experiments) get to test themselves against the Avengers.   We briefly saw the twins (Wanda and Pietro Maximoff) at the end of Winter Soldier, and as Maria Hill sums up their powers, “he’s fast, and she’s weird” – basically he’s got superspeed, and she’s got some telekinesis and some mental manipulations.  In the comics – they are the children of Magneto, and she’s one of the most power mutants alive…however, in the MCU, we’re not allowed to say Magneto or Mutant, so they’re enhanced orphans. Wanda zaps Tony’s mind as he is learning that Strucker was building robots, and experimenting with Chitari leftovers.  He has a vision in which he sees all the Avengers dead, and a dying Captain America blames him.  He shakes it off (no – he doesn’t, that’s going to haunt him for a while) just in time to grab the spear and head out.   This is also where we first see the ‘lullabye’ protocol, which is something that Black Widow and Bruce Banner have worked out and helps Widow shut down the Hulk back into Banner. 

Relieved that they seem to have defeated Hydra, they go back home to Avengers tower and decide to have a party, in three days.  Why they decide not to have the party immediately is not clear to me (maybe Thor needs to go shopping for party clothes?) – but most likely to allow Stark enough time to convince Banner to help him get the Ultron Initiative working.  Apparently he’s been working on it without success, but now, with the extra computer knowledge from Loki’s spear, he can get it to work.  Essentially, Ultron is an AI (artificial intelligence) created to protect the world, so the Avengers can get some time off.  Here we come to that same question – Why, oh why, doesn’t anyone in any movie who is thinking of creating an AI ever watch any other movie where someone does that?  It always goes bad.  The first thing a sentient machine does, every single time, is to decide that the best way to save the world is to eliminate humanity.  So guess what, Ultron goes live, gets an attitude with Jarvis (and seems to destroy him), then decides to create himself a body to eliminate humankind. 

This interrupts the party – for the record, I loved the party scene.  It was really fun to see the Avengers all relaxed and hanging out.  The Stan Lee cameo was awesome, the Falcon bit was awesome, Stark and Thor debating who has the better girlfriend was awesome, the Banner/Widow flirtation was awesome, the War Machine story was awesome, the everyone-tries-to-pick-up-the-hammer bit was beyond awesome.  But then – Ultron comes out, takes a page from Smaug’s book and gets real talky.  Then he turns Stark’s “Iron Legion” (backup automated Iron Man suits controlled by Jarvis) against the Avengers, steals the spear, and heads out.  Once the rest of the crew finds out what Tony has been up to they get a bit angry, but then put their heads together and decide that Ultron is after Vibranium, and only Ulysses Klaw has some, or knows how to get more – so they head near (not to, not yet anyway) the fictional African nation of Wakanda.  

This leads to another confrontation with Ultron, during which Wanda messes with everyone’s head – except Hawkeye, because he’s on the lookout for that kind of nonsense after dealing with Loki in the last movie – literally, he says that.  Wanda also whammies Banner - which unleashes the Hulk on Johannesburg.  This leads to Stark having to call down “Veronica”, or the Hulkbuster suit for the Hulkbuster/Hulk battle that all the hardcore fans have wanted for some time. 

Eventually the Avengers are beaten, bruised, and depressed as they head home.  Maria Hill lets them know they cannot go to Avengers tower, because everyone is angry with them.  They head to a ‘safe house’.  And here, in the middle of the movie, seems to be the part Joss Whedon created in response to everyone who claimed Hawkeye was useless (remember, he created the Buffy episode Hush after many comments that his episodes were too talky).  Hawkeye (spoiler alert) is married with kids that SHIELD helped him hide to keep them safe.  Here, at his secret farmhouse, his wife reminds him how important he is to the Avengers.  Widow and Banner consider running away together, but then just succeed in bumming each other out (in a really touching and well done scene).  Cap and Tony cut some wood (including an awesome moment where Cap rips a log apart with his bare hands), and Nick Fury shows up to give everyone a much-needed pep talk.  They head to South Korea, where apparently Ultron has gone to download into a new body created by geneticist Dr. Cho that is half vibranium and half real tissue.  While he’s uploading, the twins get upset at his worldwide destruction plans and promptly quit his service and help the Avengers – at which point Cap immediately starts giving them orders.

Widow successfully steals the new body, but unsuccessfully gets captured in the course of another huge action piece.  The body gets taken back to the tower, where more arguing ensues about whether or not to upload what’s left of Jarvis into the body.  As they are arguing, Thor appears and uses his lightning to animate the body – which wakes up, and puts on a cape and becomes Vision, with Jarvis’s voice.  Vision gives another brief pep talk so the Avengers can go end Ultron, who has decided to go back to Strucker’s castle in Sokovia, and raise the city to turn into a meteor to drop back on the earth from a height high enough to wipe out humanity.  The Avengers arrive and get into a huge battle with him and all his robots to defeat him.

They do – but not without a cost, they also save all the people (take note, DC).  Eventually they head back to the new Avengers base (outside the city, a really smart move).  Tony, Bruce, and Hawkeye all seem to retire, and Widow and Cap get ready to train a new group of Avengers.  Happy ending – oh, until Thanos grabs his gauntlet and gets ready to collect some gems (we’ve seen the Tesseract/space gem which is blue, the Aether/reality gem - red, Loki’s Spear/mind gem - yellow, and the Orb/power gem – purple…we’re still missing orange and green).

Once again, Joss Whedon excels at directing a big group of thrown-together family units.  The action is spectacular, and yes – there is a lot of it.  There are five major action sequences in this movie.  Every character (and there are a lot) is given their moment, and they perform it well.

  • Once again, Robert Downey Jr. continues to be the heart and soul of the MCU.  He also continues to be indistinguishable from Tony Stark, but that is what we love.  I did feel that this is the first time Tony was just a bit unlikeable in moments.  He seemed to be very able to manipulate Banner into doing what he wants him to. There are many, many RDJ moments that are fantastic – the bits during the Hulkbuster fight, the desire to find a secret door, the breakdown while fixing the tractor.  He’s great, and I’m very interested to see him in Captain America 3.

  • Chris Evans plays Captain America and he just gets better and better in this role.  You really take notice every time he talks, and he is definitely in charge of the team this time around.  I love that the rest of the Avengers really look to him for guidance, and I love how quickly the twins fell in line once he gave them orders.  Evans also does an amazing job looking very haunted and sad by his vision of Peggy as he is considering all he lost.

  • Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, and yes, he does get shirtless to go into the memory-pool (what?).  He had a little less to do in this movie than in the first one, but the everyone-tries-to-pick-up-the-hammer scene is one of the best parts of the movie, and pays off big time at the end.

  • Mark Ruffalo plays Bruce Banner and performance captures the Hulk really spectacularly.  The performance capture work has gotten so good that you can really see some emotions playing across the Hulk’s face once he comes out of Wanda’s spell.  I also really loved the flirting scenes between he and Widow, it really makes you want these two to have a chance at happiness.

  • Scarlett Johanssen plays Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and again, she is pretty great in this.  She has some amazing action sequences, but the flirting with Banner is some of the best stuff in the movie.   

  • Jeremy Renner plays this newly completely developed version of Hawkeye, and he suddenly is way more interesting than he has been before.  I loved the scenes at the farm house.  I definitely fell for the red herrings all the way through the movie where Hawkeye does his best “Dead Meat” from Hot Shots impression. I am hoping this is the only Avengers review that you read that will reference the movie Hot Shots.  If you don’t get that reference, it’s time for you to watch Hot Shots again.

  • Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury, or really just plays Sam Jackson with an eye patch.  But since that’s how I prefer my Nick Fury – that makes me really happy.  He shows up just in time to give the Avengers the pull-together they needed.  To get that in the last movie, they had to kill Coulson.

  • Don Cheadle plays James Rhodes/War Machine, and he was great in this movie in a tiny supporting role.  He really helps out in the end, but really shone in the party sequence where he keeps sharing a ‘War machine’ story to impress people.

  • Cobie Smulders plays Maria Hill, and she’s mostly exposition in this movie, but she’s good at that.  She helps keep everyone in line.

  • Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson/Falcon, and I could have used about 150% more Falcon in this movie – he was one of my favorite parts of the Winter Soldier.  He definitely will get more action next time around as he seems to be one of the new Avengers.

  • Aaron Taylor Johnson plays Pietro Maximoff – and his accent was passable, the speed looked good, and he’s really there just to support his sister.

  • Elizabeth Olson plays Wanda Maximoff  - her accent was also passable.  She really does a great job, so much more than I was expecting.  She has a lot of funky hand gestures to do during battle sequences, and her power really becomes apparent as the movie progresses.

  • Andy Serkis consulted on some of the performance capture, and also appears as Ulysses Klaw, who we can assume will be one of the main villains in the upcoming Black Panther movie.

  • Haley Atwell plays Peggy Carter in Cap’s vision/dream, and that really just made me want more Agent Carter on TV.  That series was great and you can still catch it on Hulu if you missed it.
  • One of the two above-and-beyond performances of the movie is Paul Bettany finally in front of the camera as Vision (as opposed to the years off-camera as Jarvis), and I cannot tell you how much I loved him.  I was a bit surprised, because I was not sure how they were going to do a convincing humany-type android.  However, they pull it off, he looks amazing, and Bettany gives a gentle but reassuring performance that just made me want more Vision.  Also – there are several moments of Wanda sneaking extended looks at him.

  • The second of the two scene-stealers is James Spader as Ultron, which I think we all expected.  Once again, the performance capture is so exceptional, that it was very off-putting how  James Spadery Ultron behaves.  I really expected Ultron to show up with Raymond Reddington’s fedora at several points. 

The movie is fantastic.  I’m not sure I thought it was better than the first Avengers, but I sure did love it.  You will hear some loud criticisms of this movie – the first being that it was too big and had too many characters.  My disagreement with that is that this is the Phase 2 culmination, so it should include all the characters from Phase 2.  I felt they did a great job including everyone, without shortchanging any particular character.   And, I still wanted more - I wanted Carol Danvers, T'Challa, and Stephen Strange to all show up!
The second major criticism that you will hear is that there are too many action sequences.  What?  It’s a summer popcorn action movie; it’s supposed to have a lot of action!  But yes, there were 5 full action set pieces.  I felt that was balanced perfectly with some quiet, emotional sequences.  I will say the final action sequence, where the Avengers battle a ton of robots, feels very much the same as the final action sequence of the first movie, where the Avengers battle a ton of aliens.  The thing that Marvel does well is balance out the tone in these movies:  Yes, this one has excessive action, but that is balanced with wonderful character beats and truly funny humorous moments (hear that, DC?) They have also succeed in the very complicated task of building an entire cinematic universe with a group of people that genuinely enjoy working with one another, and all of them understand that they are part of the bigger whole unit.  Yes – you’ll get your stand-alone movie, but then you have to also be willing to be a bit player in someone else’s stand-alone movie. 

10 out of 10 – even with the excessive action and really long running time, I loved it, I thought it was fantastic, and I cannot wait to see what Marvel does next (Ant-Man comes out July 17th).  We know they are working on Phase 3, and hopefully will continue through Phase 4, 5, 6, etc.  Marvel is a huge universe, and they could continue indefinitely. 

Bonus Video 1: Ant Man Trailer

Bonus Video 2: Avengers Family Feud

Bonus Video 3: Avengers Cast Interview