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Moviegoers Assemble – Avengers: Age of Ultron is Worth Seeing

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May 1 marks the release of the much-anticipated second movie in the Avengers franchise. Comic book fans and non-fans alike should take the time to see this movie; it has action, it has humor, it has character development, it has an astounding plot with copious twists and turns, and it sets up for future Marvel movies, including Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Without further ado, the good, the less good and the slightly ugly of Avengers: Age of Ultron

 

Avengers Age of Ultron

 

Starting with the negatives, few that they were, the movie starts out a little shaky, graphically. The first scene has a lot of movement and action, but it looks very fake, as if they did not spend as much time focusing on it as they did the rest of the movie. When opening a big movie that has a lot of computerized graphics, it is probably not the best idea to start sloppy. However, by the end of the fight, it comes together much more fully, and the rest of the movie is graphically gorgeous.

That was the strongest negative that could be found in this movie. This was an amazing film, far and away the best in the Marvel lineup, which is saying something, given the strong films they have been producing. The only other disappointment was the lack of an after-credits scene; there is still a mid-credits scene, but nothing at the end of the long lists of names and people thanked.

 

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Turning to the good points of the movie, the humor by far stole the show. Every character had one-liners galore, and there were few scenes that did not at some point elicit chuckles in the audience. Even Ultron himself, the villain of the movie, had some light-hearted moments, mostly thanks to the incredible voice acting done by James Spader.

If there is one reason to go and see this movie, it is absolutely James Spader’s performance as Ultron. Spader has a way of bringing even the darkest and most malevolent characters into the light and giving them a unique sort of twisted humor. Ultron is no different. He finds just the proper balance between homicidal lunatic and smiling savior that makes him a joy to watch.

 

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That’s not to say that the rest of the characters are not given their due time. Hawkeye, who got somewhat shafted for screen time and development in the first movie, became one of the most important parts of the sequel. He got significant plot points, the audience learned more about his background, and there were a number of surprise moments that he brought to the film. The other characters who haven’t gotten their own movies yet, Black Widow and Hulk, both got significant development themselves, making the team feel more whole.

 

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It’s good to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanding, and the addition of the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision to the Avengers team certainly fleshes out the world significantly. Even though Marvel doesn’t own the rights to call the Maximoff twins “mutants” like they are in the comics, they did a good job of portraying them as superpowered individuals, and they got a backstory that matched well the actions they were taking.

 

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch

 

Marvel is particularly good about peppering their movies with Easter eggs, and this film is no different. The film makes reference to Wakanda, the African country that is ruled by the Black Panther, and the Avengers go to speak to a black market trader off the coast of the nation, Ulysses Klaue. Klaue is better known in the comics as Klaw, an enemy of the Black Panther who can manipulate sound and who is constantly after the vibranium that is protected by the tribes of Wakanda.

 

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Dr. Helen Cho, a friend of Tony Stark’s, is the mother of a hero in the comics named Amadeus Cho, who is an ally to the Avengers; though Amadeus does not show up in this movie, it does leave open the possibility for him to appear in the future. Thor discovers the purpose of the Infinity Gems, the major magical items that have been appearing in each of the phase 2 films, and warns the Avengers of Thanos’ coming war, which is a set up directly for the next Avengers films, Infinity War (which will be released in two parts in 2018 and 2019).

 

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One other discovered secret has to do with some computer chips that Iron Man messes with late in the movie. Though the scene moves quickly, one of the chips is labeled “Jocasta.” In the comics, Jocasta is the name of a robot bride that Ultron makes for himself. This could hint at a return of Ultron in later movies – Ultron never stays dead for very long – with his wife at his side.

 

Jocasta Chip

 

As mentioned earlier, aside from the first scene, the graphics of this movie are fantastic. The fight scenes have a lot of action, and they look realistic and massive. The battle between Hulk and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster armor is particularly wonderful, as they are destroying a massive city between the two of them. Iron Man manages to continue saving people while he battles, a protective side to Tony Stark that isn’t often seen.

 

Hulkbuster Armor Age of Ultron

 

I recommend this movie without hesitation to anyone and everyone. Whether in 3D, IMAX or on a regular screen, go see this in theatres. One of the great parts of this movie is hearing the reactions of others to events as they happen. Age of Ultron is one of the best movies of recent years, another big success for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in theatres now. It was directed and written by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios. It stars James Spader, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor‑Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany.

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Kingsman: The Not-So-Secret Success

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Before reading any farther, know that I absolutely recommend going to see this movie. It is action packed, humorous, smart and funny, all rolled into one. It spoofs the whole genre of spy thrillers, but it has a cohesive and entertaining plot without too much overt mockery of other such films. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” deserves to be seen in the theatres, and these are just some of the reasons. Spoilers for the movie may follow, so be warned.

 

Kingsman - Movie Poster

 

The movie focuses on a poor 20-something called “Eggsy” (played by Taron Egerton) who is leading a rough life. He’s had trouble with the law, dropped out of school and the military and his mother’s boyfriend is a violent brute who leads a gang of local toughs. After getting arrested for stealing and wrecking a car, Secret Agent Harry Hart (played by Colin Firth) offers to train him in the craft of being a gentleman spy. Hart belongs to the titular organization, and they are recruiting a new member to replace one of their organization who was killed early in the movie. Each remaining member – all of whom are codenamed for Knights of the Round Table out of Arthurian legend – is allowed to nominate one person who will compete with the other nominees in a series of trials to determine who is most fit to join the Kingsmen.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth

 

While Eggsy is undergoing these tests, Hart, codenamed “Galahad,” begins investigating the death of his fellow agent as well as the mysterious disappearances of world leaders and celebrities. He discovers that the Internet mogul Richmond Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is behind these events. Valentine believes he is trying to save the world from the threat posed by global warming. With so many people on the planet using resources wastefully, the risk is evident, to him, at least. He wants to reduce the population of the earth to only those that he has selected as worth saving – the smart, the powerful, the rich and the artists. Valentine comes off as a fairly happy-go-lucky guy, but what makes him truly terrifying as a villain is that he honestly believes he is doing this for the good of the world, and his reasoning is frighteningly astute for the state of the world today.  Though, he is also aided by an assassin who has blades that extend from her prosthetic legs, so she adds to his status as well.

 

Kingsman - Samuel L. Jackson

 

Since Eggsy is the main character, he, of course, ends up being involved in the climactic final battle, though the twists and turns of the movie to get him there are highly entertaining. A lot of tropes from classic spy and adventure movies are present in this film, which makes predicting the general plotline somewhat easy. What makes a movie like this shine, given that, is the use of detail to surprise or distract the audience from thinking about what’s coming next. “Kingsman” uses both comedy and action to this end, and it works in its favor. It’s not often that you get to see Colin Firth take out a room full of thugs with an umbrella, or watch Samuel L. Jackson get nauseated at the sight of blood while simultaneously plotting the deaths of nearly seven billion people. The movie even finds the right balance between drama and comedy, moving seamlessly from a scene where Eggsy gets caught trying to steal a grenade shaped like a lighter to one where Valentine and Hart face off as enemies.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth

 

The movie has a strong plot and a lot of star power (Egerton, Firth and Jackson are joined by Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and even Mark Hamill), but it also has a great soundtrack and some amazing cinematography. The music for each scene is well-chosen and well-choreographed, particularly when the fireworks start later in the movie, and the fight scenes are beautiful to watch. While the story revolving around the main character starts rather slow, and ends up being rather goofy, this is an uplifting and action packed movie that simply leaves the audience feeling good. It is well worth the price of admission, even if you only go to watch Colin Firth take out the movie’s version of the Westboro Baptist Church and then attend a private dinner catered by McDonalds.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson

 

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is in theatres now. It is produced by Marv Films and distributed by 20th Century Fox, and stars Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and Taron Egerton.

I wish…

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Disney gave audiences a great gift this Christmas in the form of Into the Woods, a cinematic version of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular Broadway musicals. It’s a story that retells and interweaves classic fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. With a solid storyline to adapt for the screen, a Tony Award-winning soundtrack and a stellar cast, this is a movie worth seeing.

 

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If it’s not evident from the opening paragraph, this movie is a musical. Go into the theatre expecting lots of singing. Songs move a lot of the action in the film. I feel this needs to be clear and stated up front because as I walked out of the theatre, a surprising number of people were saying, “I didn’t know it was a musical,” or, “There was too much singing.” If you’re not a fan of musicals in general, no matter the genre, don’t go see this movie. If you’re open to giving musicals a try, however, and you like fairytales, this is a great starter musical.

Note that I won’t be critiquing the fairytale logic used in terms of the storytelling. Things such as people getting eaten by wolves and surviving, beanstalks growing to the sky overnight, climbable hair and people being able to talk to birds are just accepted as magical. I’m not looking to quarrel with the Brothers Grimm about precisely how far a giant would have to fall to be killed.

 

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

 

Additionally, given how much of a fan I am of the original play, I’ll do my best to be impartial and judge the movie on its own merits. That does not mean, however, that I won’t make some comparisons between the two.

For example, many of the problems in the film come from simple differences between screen and stage. Though Sondheim himself was involved in all aspects of the movie except the editing, the film does stay remarkably true to the play’s script, down to exact lines being repeated. However, a straight adaptation of a play to a film often does not work. One such point is the transition between plots. The first half of the play and the movie both involve the main characters traveling through the woods to get their dearest wishes. The second half happens sometime later, but involves the characters discovering that wishes have consequences, and that happily-ever-after doesn’t always last. This divide in plots works well for the stage show, where intermission can separate the two halves. In the movie, however, there is no divide, and it’s somewhat jarring to go from a celebration that many in the theatre thought was the end of the movie (people were standing to leave) to another 45 minutes of a new plot.

 

Meryl Streep as the Witch

Meryl Streep as the Witch

 

The other poor transitions from stage to film were not nearly as major. There were points at which Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) seemed to be overacting a little, but that could only be seen during close shots in his big number “Giants in the Sky.” Huttlestone sang the piece wonderfully, but he looked constantly surprised. While this was probably meant to be portraying his shock at finding giants living in a palace on the clouds, it looked more like he couldn’t believe the sounds coming from his own mouth. This overacting, which can help in the theatre when people in the seats might be too far away to see small facial changes, does not work for the big screen, where every tic and gesture is hard to miss. The other overacting scene belonged to the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) during the song “Agony,” though that was surely intentional, meant to show the characters’ over-the-top nature; it turned out well, and was a funny scene to accompany a funny song.

 

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing "Agony"

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing “Agony”

 

Audiences should also go into this movie realizing that the focus is on the characters and the score, not on the scenery – another holdover from the stage. While the backgrounds are beautiful and well designed, they are also fairly static. A lot of the sets are seen multiple times, and it can be hard to tell different sections of the forest from others. There are a few grand, sweeping shots, but, on the whole, the point of the movie is not where the characters are so much as what they’re doing and saying. The special effects were rather muted too, but again, not the point.

Now, saying that the focus isn’t on the scenery and effects doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t visually striking. The costumes are impeccable; the outfit for the Wolf (Johnny Depp) is particularly imaginative (I will say, though, the Wolf costume from the stage show has its own, shall we say, anatomical merits; I recommend an image search…). The actors are all incredibly attractive people too; even while Meryl Streep as the Witch is complaining about being cursed with ugliness, she’s still one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

 

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

 

Speaking of actors, aside from the overacting issues mentioned, the characters are brought to life by an incredibly talented cast lineup. The main cast is made up of six actors: Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), James Corden and Emily Blunt (the Baker and his Wife), Meryl Streep (the Witch), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood). While the cast is rounded out by actors such as Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s step-mother) and Tracy Ullman (Jack’s mother), these six carry the action and the story. The jokes are delivered with precise timing, the personality of the characters is found and displayed expertly and, more than anything, these actors can sing.

 

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

 

The soundtrack for this movie is nothing less than beautiful. Even compared to the soundtracks from the staged shows, this soundtrack with these actors is a powerful musical selection. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about the soundtrack before it was released; Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd and Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia were not at their best vocally. My fears for this movie, however, were quickly scattered. Though Depp is perhaps the weakest singer of the group, even his number “Hello, Little Girl” was solid, and he was a great choice for the role; he played the pedophilic wolf with a level of weirdness audiences have come to expect from him. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford, despite their young ages, are quite talented musically; Jack and Little Red Riding Hood have some fun but challenging songs in this film, and they were beautiful to hear. Anna Kendrick was a good fit for Cinderella, and her voice stood out in every song she sang. James Corden and Emily Blunt seemed to have a lot of fun with their songs, and their enthusiasm showed through the music. Meryl Streep, however, was far and away the star vocalist. The Witch gets the largest number of solos in the movie, and all of these songs are emotional and powerful and beautiful. For sheer hilarity, however, my favorite song is “Agony,” sung by the princes about how unfair life is to them (video below).

 

 

Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale play about taking care what you wish for and your wish’s ability to bring you happiness suffered some hiccups in the transition from stage to screen, but it is one of the best film adaptations of a stage musical to date. It is a PG-rated Disney movie, so it is appropriate for all ages, though it did lose some of the dark edge that makes the staged show so popular. There is a filmed version of the stage show on DVD and Netflix, if you’re ever in the mood to see the original. In the meantime, however, the film adaptation is an amazing rendition of a classic play, and one that I would recommend to any fan of good music, musical theatre or fantasy and fairytales.

Into the Woods is in theatres now. It is directed by Rob Marshall, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and is based on the musical play of the same name by Stephen Sondheim.

Hobbit: The Battle of Fantasy Fighting Action

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The final movie in the Hobbit franchise (at least until Peter Jackson decides to adapt the Simarillion into a three or more part epic) premiered last week to an opening weekend total of $90 million. It closed out the storylines of the previous Hobbit movies effectively, and it opened a few links to the Lord of the Rings movies that it precedes temporally. It had an all-star cast, great music, stunning visuals, and it will continue to rake in money over the next few weekends as people take time off during the holidays to finish out this epic series. It has many incredible parts to it, but do the pieces together form a cohesive whole? Let’s take a look at whether The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is worth seeing in theatres.

 

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If you’re going to this movie expecting a lot of plot, you’ll be disappointed. This is the weakest part of the film. Since this is the third piece of a book that takes less time to read than it takes to sit and watch the movies, there is not a lot of story left to tell. Within 10 minutes of the film’s beginning, the largest cliffhanger from the previous movie is resolved, and whispers in the theatre begin commenting, “Well, that was a short movie.” The rest of the movie is spent concluding the quest of the dwarves and conducting the titular battle. Now, to say there is little plot is not to say that there is little action. The whole movie is action, as one would expect from a subtitle like Battle of the Five Armies. Even though we know how some of the action sequences will turn out thanks to the Lord of the Rings movies, that doesn’t detract from the excitement of the fight scenes.

What does detract from the movie is the insertion of two minor plots that steal from the action for no apparent reason. These plots come in the form of the wood-elf Tauriel and the human Alfrid Lickspittle. Tauriel is an elf woman who first appeared in Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. She’s the equal of (or perhaps even greater than) the ever-popular Legolas in terms of bow skills, beauty and general elven bad-assery. Then she falls in love with a dwarf. While this romance subplot does not diminish her skills, it does somewhat weaken her character. Her choices seem somewhat haphazard in relation to the other characters; whereas they are fighting for their homes or for revenge or for riches (no one ever accused their motives of being noble), she seems to totter into scenes just to shoot things in the pursuit of her dwarf. Her final lines in the movie even fall back on being a romantic cliché. This lack of direction of her character is likely due to the fact that she was created by Peter Jackson for the purposes of these two movies. Tauriel does not appear in the source material, and so she has no plot relevance. A weak personal ending and a lack of direction unfortunately hampered an otherwise impressive character.

 

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

 

Alfrid Lickspittle, on the other hand, was exactly what you’d expect from someone with the name “Lickspittle.” Long, greasy hair, sunken eyes under a unibrow, a pedophile-type mustache… he’s the quintessential “worm” character. He does everything he can to look out for his own interests, and clings to the person with the most power in the foolish belief that it keeps him secure and well-off. He seems intended to provide comic relief to a movie heavy with death, but he fails at that task. By his third appearance, groans can be heard from most moviegoers. Alfrid does come off as exactly the character he is intended to be, but he was not a necessary part of the film. He could have easily been removed, and no part of the plot would have been altered even slightly. He was another addition by Peter Jackson, though he was based on an unnamed advisor to the Master of Laketown that appeared in a single scene in the original book. Perhaps the movie character would have been better had he received the same treatment.

 

Ryan Gage as Alfrid Lickspittle

Ryan Gage as Alfrid Lickspittle

 

Though it may seem like I’m stuck on the negatives of this film, it does have some powerful factors in its favor as well. Most notable, of course, are the graphic elements. The scenery is gorgeous, with wide, sweeping shots that give a sense of scale to the battle sequences. The special effects and the CGI are expertly done, and no one can ever get enough of exploding walls and glittering elven armies and terrifying orcish hordes and flaming cities and swooping war bats… I mean, unless you’re living through it… There is no part of this film that is not visually stunning. It is well worth the extra money to see it in 3D or in IMAX, particularly when it comes to the battles.

 

Army of wood elves prepare for battle

Army of wood elves prepare for battle

 

The action sequences in the movie are well worth the price of admission. While the movie is mainly focused on the action, it is paced well so that the audience can catch a breath between scenes. The best examples of this happen when aerial views are given of the clashing armies, or when the melee is too hectic to focus on a single character. It’s ironic that the smaller battles have the bigger impact, the more intense fighting. Though, it also makes sense; when the audience can focus on a character that they know and have connected with in some manner, it drives the fight home more. Still, there is plenty of fighting to keep any action fan happy and bouncing up and down in their seat as hearts are stabbed and heads are rolling. On a side note, orcs seem to be the most easily decapitated characters ever created.

 

Army of Orcs heading into battle

Army of Orcs heading into battle

 

Two other major highlights of the film were the actors and the music. The Battle of the Five Armies has an all-star cast, led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage. Even small roles had big names filling the part, such as Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Christopher Lee reprising his role as Saruman the White and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown. This acting talent was backed by a gorgeous score composed by Howard Shore, who has won three Academy Awards for his work on other movies in the Lord of the Rings Saga. His music fills the air perfectly for each situation, and the scenes without music are made more sharply distinct by its absence.

 

The company of Thorin Oakenshield

The company of Thorin Oakenshield

 

Overall, this is a movie worth seeing. Go in expecting action and beauty, but not a lot of substance. See it in 3D or in IMAX to get the most out of it. While The Hobbit probably would have been better served by not being split into three movies, it’s too late to change that now, and the movie should not be faulted for decisions that can’t be changed. The Battle of the Five Armies fits nicely in its place as an ending to the Hobbit trilogy and an introduction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it is fun, pure and simple. So, go to your local theatre and experience The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s the last Peter Jackson directed movie in Middle Earth… for now, at least.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in theatres now. It is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and directed by Peter Jackson.