AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 

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SHOWRUNNERS (2014, doc)

October 30, 2014

showrunners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s simultaneously “the best job and the worst job”. While not a definition of a TV Showrunner, that is certainly the best description. With the recent renaissance of TV, and the competition between networks, cable and the internet, an incredible level of creativity and freedom has produced a more cinematic effect on the small screen. Whose broad shoulders are responsible for what we watch? The Showrunners, that’s who.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at the process of getting a show to air, and then struggling to keep it there … it takes an enormous amount of talent and a ton of good luck. We learn that 84% of new TV shows fail, and it’s important to note that good shows often fail – not just bad ones. Director Des Doyle presents an extremely impressive succession of interviews. These are the writers, producers and showrunners of some of TV’s most innovative shows: JJ Abrams (“Lost”), Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire”), and Janet Tamaro (“Rizzoli & Ives”) just to name a few. This who’s who of showrunners generously share their insight and observations on the business that more than a few call “a grind”.

Especially interesting is the concentration on the writing process. We go inside the writer’s room and hear discussions on the importance of looking at the entire season, rather than a specific episode. We learn the importance of “quality scripts on time”, meaning the writing must be good and must come fast – episodes frequently air within a month of filming. Joss Whedon advises writers to focus on moments, not on moves. Collaboration is crucial, and while nothing beats an actor who embodies a particular role (Michael Chiklis in “The Shield”), never lose sight that writing is the heart of TV shows.

Discussion of the various outlets (networks, cable, internet) leads to an explanation of how TV writing has evolved. Some shows are now designed for the increasingly-popular “binge watching”, while network shows are still in the business of “selling ads”. Another significant shift is due to Social Media. TV is described as now being like the theatre – immediate feedback is available (Twitter, Facebook). While ratings are still important, interaction between the industry and viewing public is now standard operating procedure.

It’s not often we are allowed behind the curtain in the entertainment business, but this one should be mandatory viewing for anyone with an itch to become a TV writer. You should know the stress and insecurities that accompany the talent and ego. You should understand the time pressures and the lack of recognition that often follows even those who prove successful. You should also know that for those who have it in their blood, nothing else compares. This is truly “the art of running a TV show”.

watch the trailer:

 


MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2013)

June 23, 2013

much ado1 Greetings again from the darkness. The previous movie version of William Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing” was directed in 1993 by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed Thor (2011). This modernized, much simpler version is directed by Joss Whedon, who also directed The Avengers last year. It’s difficult to imagine a more oddball movie symmetry than that! Whedon’s production plays almost like a home movie, and in a way it is. Filmed at the director’s Santa Monica house with a cast featuring mostly a close group of his friends … those that frequently gather for Shakespeare dinner parties … this one exudes a certain joy and love of the material from all involved, with a live theatre feel.

I have always been more attracted to Shakespeare’s comedies than his more famous tragedies. His startling wordsmithing is much ado3always filled with an edge and is borne of real personalities we all recognize. Combine that with director Whedon’s love of rapid-fire, wise-cracking dialogue and we get something from the ilk of Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks screwball comedies.

The banter and battle of wits between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are at the heart of the story. Their flirtations are recognizable as two who doth protest too much … as if it could hide their mutual attraction. In one of the most pure comedic roles from the pen of Shakespeare comes Dogberry, the detective on the case of the dark conspiracy occurring right under the noses of most characters. Nathan Fillion (“Castle”) plays Dogberry in such a manner that he steals every scene in which he appears … both verbally and physically. He provides some laugh out loud moments.

much ado3 You will recognize some of the others in Whedon’s acting troupe: Reed Diamond plays Don Pedro, Clark Gregg as Leonato, and Fran Kranz as Claudio. Newcomer Jillian Morgese plays Hero, the falsely-accused bride-to-be, whose misfortunes lead to the great Dogberry scenes.

The temptation here is to say that a very entertaining movie can be made simply, cheaply and quickly (12 days filming). Of course, as wonderful as Amy Acker is, the real star is the story and words from William Shakespeare … even in this modernized setting. As we all know, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Whedon and his cronies prove this.  I’m not sure this is the best indoctrination to Shakespeare, but I believe only the most traditional of Shakespeare devotees will not find some joy in this version.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of The Bard and enjoy seeing varying visual interpretations of his fantastic work

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are the firm traditionalist who believes Shakespeare only belongs on stage or on paper

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAMsDP_DMHE

 


THE AVENGERS (2012)

May 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The concern coming in was that this would be like an All-Star game, which as any sports fan will tell you, is typically a massive letdown. Assembling so many super heroes and colorful characters into one movie: Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Loki … would probably lead to either mass confusion, a 4 hour movie, or short straws for a couple of characters. Somehow director/co-writer Joss Whedon has avoided the pitfalls and delivered a huge action film that is loads of fun for everyone, including the fanboys.

Whedon does a remarkable job of giving each character their fair share of screen time, and somehow manages to make the interaction between the characters the best part of the movie. There is some terrific dialogue and the number of quick-witted exchanges are too numerous to recount. While this would be expected from Robert Downey, Jr‘s Iron Man, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor and especially Mark Ruffalo‘s Dr Banner/Hulk. I found Ruffalo’s take on the role very interesting since he is the third actor to tackle this in the past nine years (Eric Bana 2003 and Edward Norton 2008). The movie contains quite a few laugh outloud moments, which is pretty impressive in a filled theatre.

 If you are going to combine six super heroes in a movie, you need a bad guy. A villain. Actually, a super villain. Tom Hiddleston as Loki (The God of Mischief from Asgard, and Thor’s brother) is up to the task. For me, he was a weak link in Thor, but here is a full-fledged, powerful evil mastermind looking to gain power by stealing the global power of Tesseract (Cosmic Cube), commanding an alien army, and ruling earth. Hiddleston is clearly having fun and it shows. For the movie to work at all, his plan and power must stand up to the impressive line up of good guys he is fighting. That is certainly the case.

 Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow has come a long way from her brief work in Iron Man2, and we really get to know more about Natasha the Russian spy … although her accent fades in and out. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye seems a bit out of place, but Renner is so cool, we don’t really care. Chris Evans as Captain America does a wonderful job of taking control of the band of misfits and displays the leadership expected of a super-soldier. We even get a good dose of Agent Coulson (Phil to his friends) and Clark Gregg‘s deadpan deliver is a great addition. Samuel L Jackson (as Nick Fury) will be adding hundreds of millions more to his current record of being the highest-grossing actor of all-time.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts. Since last we saw her, she has evidently been shopping for short shorts and helping design the new Stark Tower. Natalie Portman makes a creative cameo, reprising her awful role in Thor. Stellan Skarsgard is back as a believable scientist. Powers Boothe appears as a member of the Council that Fury reports to. The great Harry Dean Stanton(at 85 yrs of age) has a comical scene as a security guard who stumbles onto Hulk’s mess. And of course, Stan Lee makes his well-deserved cameo appearance – a tradition in the Marvel movies.

Much of the credit for this must go to Joss Whedon. He may finally be out of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” shadow, as this movie is quite an accomplishment. Entertaining and funny for the masses, yet detailed enough for the comic book fan boys. I was thinking how much fun this would be for a 10-12 year old, and how my mind might have exploded if something like this existed in my childhood. Even comparing this to the Christoper Reeve Superman movies will help you realize just how far super heroes movies have come.  There are some holes in the story and a couple of things will have you scratching your head if you think too hard … but this one’s not about thinking.  Just sit back and enjoy!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see the most Academy Award nominees ever assembled for a super hero movie OR you just want to have fun watching a big old summertime blockbuster with comedy, action and colorful characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already decided you’ll hate it … otherwise, you might actually like it

watch the trailer:


THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011)

April 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well I was not ready for the horror/zombie/slasher genre to be turned on its ear, but that’s exactly what co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (also director) have done here. Rest assured that your favorite aspects of horror films will be lampooned, or at least parodied. There are times you will jump and laugh simultaneously, but mostly I found myself checking off the influences/targets of the filmmakers.

There is no way to comment on this film without offering up spoilers, and I will not do that. What I can tell you is that you’ll be reminded of films such as Scream, Friday the 13th, Bubba Ho-Tep, Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead, Saw, and dare I say, elements of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone … you know the parts where you know there is more going on than you are seeing, but you can’t quite put it all together.

 The movie starts out with a tongue-in-cheek assembly of generic characters from most horror films: the fun-loving jock (Chris Hemsworth, pre-Thor), the “bad” girl (Anna Hutchison), the “good” girl (Kristen Connolly), the brainiac (Jesse Williams), and of course the comic relief stoner waxing philosophical (a very effective Fran Kranz). This group piles into a borrowed RV and heads to the cabin. And yes, we get the obligatory stop at the run down gas station manned by the straight-from-Deliverance attendant played by tobacco-spitting Tim De Zarn.

 We learn quickly that something odd is going on and our heroes are really playthings in some kind of cosmic game being conducted at an underground lab run by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. That much is shown in the trailer and that’s the end of what I will say. After that, the choice is yours … just like in the basement.

I have no idea whether to recommend this movie, and if so, to whom.  The last 15 minutes are pure mayhem, and you will either be fully onboard with this Disneyland ride gone bad, or you will have wanted to leave for the past hour. Filmed three years ago, but caught up in studio legalities, the movie was selected for opening night at SXSW and it truly is a twisted, even demented jab at all things horror. Only you can decide what comes next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your twisted, demented movie-watching personality has made you a horror/zombie/slasher expert and you don’t mind Whedon and Goddard poking a little fun at your genre … just don’t blame me.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: I didn’t just describe you in the “See” section

watch this trailer … or don’t, if you are planning to see the movie: