Movie Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany
Director
Joss Whedon

Seconds into the film, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is already overdoing it. It opens with an assault on a Hydra base, and the team is kicking ass, but with the exception of a fantastic shot straight out of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” it’s underwhelming, a more elaborately choreographed and at the same time less thrilling version of the battle sequence at the end of “The Avengers.” The ‘bigger is better’ mentality is to be expected, but what isn’t expected, or appreciated, is the “Transformers”-like fixation it has with breaking stuff (as in entire cities) for no reason, and worse, there are no consequences for doing so. On top of that, writer/director Joss Whedon’s normally snappy dialogue is woefully lacking. Whedon has said that he’s walking away from the Marvel universe after this (Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” are taking the reins on the next two “Avengers” movies), and after seeing “Ultron,” it makes sense; from the looks of things, this movie killed him.

Inside the aforementioned Hydra base is a gold mine of military weapons, both mechanical and human, created by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). He’s used Loki’s scepter to give orphaned twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) superhuman powers, namely (and again, respectively) super speed and all sorts of telekinetic abilities. The Avengers do not get any of Hydra’s data, but they do acquire the scepter, and in studying it, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the brilliantly stupid idea to convert the scepter’s alien power source into an artificial intelligence that will work to achieve world peace, an idea he’s had for years but has never been able to perfect. This time, it works, and the new consciousness, which he had nicknamed Ultron (James Spader), has a plan for peace on Earth. Unfortunately, his plan involves the extinction of mankind.

Wanda can get people to see things, namely their worst fears. We see the nightmares of everyone she touches, except for Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who goes on to do the most damage: he terrorizes a large city, the very thing he spent years of his life in exile in order to prevent. Of all the nightmares that the audience absolutely has to see, this is the one. Instead, we get Hulk’s reaction to his visions without context, which culminates in a ridiculous street fight between Hulk and Iron Man that does tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage (though it admittedly has a good laugh halfway through). Everything about this is wrong, and the opposite of what Whedon normally stands for as a storyteller. Just one line explaining that Stark will pay for everything, or that the Avengers are losing the people’s trust, would do. We get neither.

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Movie Review: “Lucy”

Starring
Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked
Director
Luc Besson

There’s an episode of “Phineas and Ferb” where the gang is in Tokyo, and a J-pop music video breaks out. As they’re leaving (still dancing, of course), Candace looks at Isabella and says, “I have no idea what just happened.” The final third of Luc Besson’s “Lucy” prompted a similar reaction. It is just barely connected to the events that preceded it, morphing from a story loosely in the vein of Besson’s (great) 1994 film “The Professional” into something along the lines of this year’s (not great) “Transcendence.” If anything, Besson made an outstanding case against the notion that humans should try to maximize their brain power. Sure, we might become brilliant, but we’d also become crashing bores.

Lucy (Scarlett Johannson) is scraping by in Taipei, partying too much and studying too little. Her drinking buddy Richard (Pilou Asbaek) asks her to deliver a briefcase to businessman Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, who looks like a Korean Russell Crowe). When Lucy refuses, Richard forces her to do it by handcuffing the case to her wrist. She delivers the suitcase, only to discover that it contains a new, powerful synthetic drug, and she will be forced to smuggle one of the packages of the drug inside her body for distribution elsewhere. She is assaulted shortly after the package has been placed inside of her, and the package breaks. As the drug flows through her body, Lucy’s ability to tap into the farthest resources of her mind expands. The now-enlightened Lucy uses her newfound intelligence, as well as her ability to manipulate the space around her (levitation, force fields, etc.), to get even with Mr. Jang, while simultaneously contacting Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) to show him that his theories on the subject of brain usage are dead on the money.

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Movie Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Starring
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford
Director
Anthony & Joe Russo

There’s been a lot of talk about comic book movie fatigue these days, but the people at Marvel Studios clearly aren’t letting that affect their productivity, because just like fellow Disney-owned company Pixar, they’ve continued to deliver the same high-quality films as when they started. Granted, it’s only a matter of time before Marvel’s unblemished track record is ruined by a “Cars 2,” but “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is not that movie. In fact, it’s a major improvement upon the character’s first solo adventure, trading in the period war setting for an old-school conspiracy thriller that addresses real-world issues like national security. It also has some really cool action beats, occasional bits of humor, and perhaps most importantly, a better storyline for its titular hero.

Since being thawed from his icy slumber and aiding in the defense of New York in “The Avengers,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has become a full-fledged member of S.H.I.E.L.D, but he’s still learning to adapt to the modern world and the questionable methods that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) employs to ensure that it remains safe. When S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes compromised by people within the organization, however, Steve is forced to go on the run alongside fellow operative Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), in order to smoke out the traitors and stop them from assuming control of a secret fleet of aircraft carriers designed to eliminate threats before they happen. Standing in their way is a super-powered, metal-armed assassin called the Winter Soldier who looks suspiciously like someone from Steve’s past.

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Movie Review: “Her”

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
Director
Spike Jonze

It’s a pity that “Her” is rated R, because tweens and teens could learn a lot from it. (Note to parents: while your kids should see this movie, they shouldn’t see it with you, because it’s occasionally naughty, and you’ll both feel embarrassed watching it together.) Writer/director Spike Jonze uses a fantastical premise – a computer operating system that people can interact with like they would another human being – to deliver sharp commentary about the importance of the human touch in the Catfish era, where online relationships carry the same weight as a physical relationship. As an added bonus, he points out just how messed up we are as a species, and how lucky any of us are to make a meaningful connection with another person.

After a year-long separation, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is still stinging from his impending divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). Eager to make some kind of emotional connection but still gun shy about getting involved with someone, he buys a new operating system for his computer that comes with an interactive, self-aware voice program. He chooses a female voice named Samantha (Scarlett Johannson). Samantha helps Theodore organize his life in ways he would never have been capable of doing himself, and she’s eager to learn more about Theodore as a person and what it’s like to be human in general. Theodore is seduced by Samantha’s thoughtfulness and reassuring voice, and finds himself turning down potential couplings with real women in favor of spending more time with Samantha. Eventually, Theodore considers Samantha his girlfriend. This makes Samantha happy and, eager to be more than just a voice in his earpiece, she decides to take things to the next level. Considering the fact that she doesn’t have a body, her efforts to consummate the relationship are curious, to say the least.

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Movie Review: “Don Jon”

Starring
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenn Headley, Rob Brown
Director
Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Talk about having your cake and eating it too. For his debut as a writer and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt pens a script that gives him the opportunity to grope and “bed” a bevy of gorgeous women (capping it off with Scarlett Johansson), and gets the last laugh by putting a fair amount of depth into his study of a very shallow man. “Don Jon” feels a bit like a comedic version of “Shame,” the infamous wow-look-at-Michael-Fassbender’s-penis movie, but in reality the two leads are alike only in that they’re broken men who like to score. Where “Shame” was more of a character study, “Don Jon” is focused on a societal problem.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a buff, handsome, free-living Jerseyite. Each week, he and his two best buds hit the club, and Jon manages to score a “10” every time, earning him the nickname Don Jon. And yet, even after sex with these beautiful women, Jon heads to his laptop to surf for porn. (We don’t know this for a fact, but www.pornhub.com may be the first adult web site to strike a product placement deal in a mainstream motion picture.) One night, he sees Barbara (Johannson), and is positively smitten, but still likes his porn. The two soon date, and when she discovers his vice, she’s horrified, even though her fascination with Hollywood romance films (the film within the film has two killer cameos) has given her equally warped notions of love. Enter Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow night school student in Jon’s class who’s able to give Jon the one thing he truly needs: perspective.

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