Sometimes the worst enemies are the ones we create ourselves.
That’s the difficult lesson the Avengers learn in “Age of Ultron,” as the team of superheroes face a genocidal artificial intelligence named “Ultron”… who was created by Tony Stark/Iron Man. Ultron was meant to protect the Avengers and the world from danger, but he quite literally takes on a mind of his own, builds himself a robot form, and tries to destroy the world.
“Age of Ultron” is the follow-up to 2012’s blockbuster superhero round-up “The Avengers.” Director Joss Whedon throws new challenges at his team of superheroes this time around, and it’s a conflict that one of them won’t survive. It’s already pretty much a given “Age of Ultron” will be the biggest movie of the summer – the real question is, does it live up to the hype generated by its wildly successful predecessor?
The short answer is, “Age of Ultron” is big, action-packed, and lots of fun. There’s plenty of banter between the heroes, the fight scenes/special effects are perfectly choreographed, and there are plenty of the trademark Marvel one-liners (such as a running joke started when Captain America chides Iron Man for using “bad language”). Marvel has well cast all of its roles, and once again, it’s a blast watching the dynamics between the very different heroes.
However, it is fair to say that overall, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t pack quite the same punch as “The Avengers.” Maybe that’s because at the time, “The Avengers” provided something we hadn’t seen before. Marvel produced a series of detailed solo films for each of the characters before throwing them together for a sort of superhero “Magnificent Seven”; all the build-up definitely paid off. The movie felt fresh and exciting, and I walked out of the theater feeling that rush of geeky giddiness. Although I also got that feeling from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it just wasn’t as strong for “Age of Ultron.”
*Warning: Major spoilers ahead!*
What I did love about “Age of Ultron”: Ultron himself is a fascinating villain, and I love the concept that as Tony Stark fights the robot, he’s really battling the manifestations of his own inner demons. Ultron is voiced with creepy perfection by James Spader, whose character is equal parts frightening, patronizing and captivating. He’s one of the best — and despite the fact he’s a robot, one of the most complex — villains to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I also loved Vision, the entity created to help the Avengers bring down Ultron. He’s played by Paul Bettany, who previously played J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s computer system. Vision is an intriguing enigma, and I definitely hope we see more of him in MCU films.
The action scenes in the film don’t disappoint, taking the Avengers to various spots around the globe. It was nice to see more of a backstory for Hawkeye, a character that sometimes seems to be overlooked in the Avengers line-up (a fact Hawkeye even cracks a joke about in the film). I enjoyed catching a glimpse into Black Widow’s past as well, and I hope we learn more about her backstory in future films.
I do have to say I wasn’t a huge fan of the romantic subplot between Black Widow and the Hulk. It’s not that these characters aren’t an interesting pairing; I think they are, and it’s a subplot that could work. However, it seemed to move too fast in this movie, and I don’t think film makers provided enough build-up. It also seemed like an odd plot shift after the decidedly flirty chemistry between Black Widow and Captain America in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” I had really been hoping the MCU would explore this chemistry more in later films, especially since Black Widow/Captain America would make an interesting pairing, as well.
I also wanted to see more development for the two new Avengers, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. I was genuinely surprised by Quicksilver’s death at the end of the film. We’d heard rumors an Avenger was going to die, but most of the speculation seemed to be surrounding Hawkeye. The film even seemed to set up Hawkeye to make the ultimate sacrifice, but Quicksilver takes a round of bullets for the archer, telling him (and the audience), “You didn’t see that coming.” I wish the film had lingered a bit more on this moment, to heighten its impact.
In short, “Age of Ultron” introduces some interesting concepts and sets up some intriguing storylines for future movies (I’m really excited for “Captain America: Civil War” now). Like all Marvel films, it’s a blast to watch, though die-hard fans may leave the theater wanting just a little more from it than it ultimately delivers.
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By Ashley Bergner
Box Office Buzz
Predicting what movies will be blockbusters and which ones will be bombs can be a tricky business. You can have a film come from seemingly out of nowhere to be a huge hit, or a film that generates a high level of buzz but doesn’t live up to the hype.
However, the summer of 2014 has seemed to be a bit more unpredictable than normal at the box office. The release schedule wasn’t as packed with hits as it has been in recent years, and only one movie managed to cross the magic $100 million opening weekend mark (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”). There were some surprising under-performers, and what was arguably the best movie of the summer wasn’t even technically a summer movie at all — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
My friends give me some good-natured teasing about being a movie junkie, and during the summertime it usually seems like I’m heading to the theater every weekend for a new movie. However, I only ended up going to the theater a handful of times in June and July, simply because there weren’t as many big draws this summer. 2014 also seems to be a bit of a slower year overall, with “The LEGO Movie” being the only standout I can think of from early in the year.
Still, even though there were a smaller crop of movies, I did end up enjoying most of the ones I went to see. The movie that did disappoint me a little bit was “Godzilla.” It was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, and had one of the best trailers of the year. There was a lot of buzz heading into this film, but I felt the final project fell short of what it could have been. The classic “monster movie” portions of the film were great, but the human characters didn’t really register on a deeper emotional level.
For me, the biggest surprises of the summer were “Edge of Tomorrow” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” “Edge of Tomorrow” wasn’t a huge box office hit, which is a shame because it was a fun, smart sci-fi movie. Its “Groundhog Day” meets “Saving Private Ryan” concept — about a soldier who has to relive the same battle against an alien army over and over — could have become repetitive, but the script is clever and witty enough to keep the film entertaining. “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t the type of movie I normally watch, but this film about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love transcends the “teen romance” genre. It’s a mature, moving film with a bittersweet ending.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” were also highlights of the summer for me. Both had strong stories with thought-provoking concepts. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” had my favorite scene from a movie this summer: the Pentagon prison break, featuring a lightning-fast mutant named Quicksilver. It’s a delightfully trippy (and fun) sequence.
Although “Captain America: The Winter Solider” — which was released in April — is probably still my favorite movie of the year, if you don’t count it as part of the summer movie season, my favorite summer movie is “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year. It’s Marvel’s quirkiest, riskiest film so far, but it beat expectations and had one of the best opening weekends at the box office. Who would have thought that a talking, trigger-happy raccoon and a gentle-hearted walking tree would be some of the best — and most emotionally resonant — characters of the summer? The movie also is definitely worth splurging on to see in IMAX.
So, what was your favorite movie of the summer? What movie did you enjoy the least?
By Ashley Bergner
Box Office Buzz
A plot that’s a blend of “Star Wars” and “The Avengers,” with a dash of “Indiana Jones.” A wisecracking, trigger-happy raccoon in a space suit. A gentle-hearted walking tree who can communicate using only one phrase. A soundtrack featuring hit songs from the ’70s. A sci-fi film that’s heavy on comedy, with numerous 1980s pop culture references.
Try to throw all these elements together in one movie, and logically, it shouldn’t work. And yet somehow, it does, and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” turns out to be delightfully quirky and original, and possibly the most fun movie to hit theaters this summer. Although the movie initially generated some speculation that it could be Marvel Studios’ first real flop, it exceeded expectations and actually came close to tying “Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s” $95 million opening earlier this year.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a departure from the films we’re used to seeing from Marvel, and is more of an old-fashioned space opera than a standard superhero film. The movie stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, a Han Solo-esque thief and smuggler who steals an artifact without realizing it actually contains a dangerously powerful energy source known as an “Infinity Stone.” Dark forces in the galaxy want to seize this power, and Quill finds himself teaming up with a ragtag band of roguish misfits in order to protect the stone: an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana); a foul-mouthed, genetically engineered raccoon (Bradley Cooper); a walking tree-like creature who can only say “I am Groot” (Vin Diesel); and a warrior named Drax who is seeking vengeance for the death of his family (Dave Bautista).
While there are some comparisons that can be drawn between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Avengers” (the “orb” standing in for the Tesseract, the concept of a team of reluctant allies forced to work together for a higher cause), “Guardians” manages to find its own voice. The strength of the movie is the characters; while the Avengers are the polished rock stars of the Marvel universe, the Guardians are more like a scrappy garage band. They’re not heroic by nature, and most of them don’t see the need to look out for anyone but their own self.
Chris Pratt proves to be a strong lead as Peter Quill, giving the character an air of roguish charm and firing off a constant stream of wisecracks. Another stand-out is Bradley Cooper as Rocket. Admittedly, the concept of a talking, gun-toting raccoon seems far-fetched, but again, somehow it works. Rocket knows how to talk tough, making the other characters (and the audience) take him seriously. Groot — the sentient tree who is Rocket’s best friend — turns out to be a surprisingly enduring character, and Drax’s extreme literalness (he can’t process metaphors) provides some great comedic moments. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is mysterious and lethal, and is immune to Quill’s charms (though of course that doesn’t stop him from trying).
Another feature I liked about the film (and it’s a feature Marvel always seems to do well) is the way the script works in comedy without losing the story’s emotional weight. This film frequently uses humor to contrast more serious moments (there’s a great bit where Peter Quill challenges Lee Pace’s very serious, very Shakespearean villain Ronan the Accuser to a “dance off”), but the humor doesn’t take away from the movie’s heart. I also really liked the soundtrack; while it may seem odd to have ’70s pop songs playing in futuristic outer space, it helps to ground the movie and captures the spirit of Peter Quill’s character.
There are probably places where you could be picky in the movie. Ronan the Accuser is a fairly generic comic book villain; Karen Gillan’s Nebula is more of a secondary villain but actually is a stronger character and might have benefited from more screen time. However, overall this is one of the most fun movies I have seen so far this year, and it’s my favorite movie of the summer. I’m glad Marvel was willing to take a risk, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel.
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By Ashley Bergner
Box Office Buzz
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprise late-summer hit in 2011, serving as a prequel to the classic sci-fi “Planet of the Apes” film about a team of astronauts who travel to the future and return to find that apes have become the dominant species on the planet Earth. A thought-provoking, emotionally resonant plot and impressive motion capture work elevated it above the shameless, cash-grabbing reboot it easily could have become, and it earned praise from critics and viewers. The good news is, the sequel — “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — is even stronger, balancing its lifelike special effects and action set pieces with reflections on what it means to be human.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” takes place a decade after the previous film; an opening montage quickly catches audiences up to date about how a virus has devastated most of planet Earth and brought about the collapse of human society. A colony of humans struggling to survive in the post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco decide to venture out into the wilderness to try to repair a hydroelectric dam that could generate power. In the forest, they discover a complex society of highly-intelligent apes who are becoming increasingly human-like (due to experiments performed on them in the first film). The ape society is led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who has gained the ability to speak.
Although Caesar forms a tenuous agreement with the humans, allowing them to work on the dam, not all of the humans and apes are certain they can trust each other. A betrayal threatens to lead both sides to war and end the humans’ hope for returning to the life they once knew on Earth.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an unconventional summer blockbuster, but that’s part of what makes it refreshing. Although there are long periods without spoken dialogue (most of the apes communicate by sign language, which is translated in the captions), the film still holds viewers’ attention, thanks to life-like motion capture work by Andy Serkis and other performers as the ape characters.
Serkis has established himself as a leader in motion capture work, and that recognition is well-earned. Though the animators deserve plenty of credit for creating the CGI apes that blend seamlessly with the live-action film, Serkis adds the subtle layers of emotion that make Caesar a fully-realized character. He is the most “human” of the apes, and the one that struggles the most over the conflict that erupts between the two cultures.
One of the film’s most interesting themes is the development of the ape society, and how more problems arise within the society the more “human-like” the apes become. With higher levels of intelligence come good traits, such as compassion and appreciation for family and friends, but the apes also discover the darker side of humanity is starting to manifest itself in their own culture: power struggles, lies, jealousy and revenge.
Another interesting thing about the film is that it doesn’t necessarily pick sides; there are good humans and bad humans, good apes and bad apes. Some see the war between the species as regrettable but unavoidable, while others see it as an opportunity to shift the balance of power. While one could argue that the apes are actually the main characters in this film, among the humans Jason Clarke is a standout as a leader who develops a friendship with Caesar.
Although the film’s open ending is obviously paving the way for a sequel, I think the ambiguousness also fits well with the tone of the film. It gives audiences space to think about our own strengths and weaknesses as a society and where we might head in the future. The movie does exactly what good science fiction should do: both entertain and enlighten.
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By Ashley Bergner
Box Office Buzz
By this point, the “Transformers” franchise seems pretty much bulletproof. Despite harsh critical reviews (the latest has a particularly scathing score of 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the movies always pull in large amounts of money at the box office. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” easily beat the competition this weekend, earning $100 million so far.
And yes, I must confess, I contributed to that $100 million this weekend. I’m not a “Transformers” apologist — I have issues with all the films in the franchise, even the first one, which actually came relatively close to a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While I think you can make an argument that sometimes it’s fun to have movies that are just pure, mindless escapism, the “Transformers” movies have always felt a little too indulgent. There are enough other action movies to choose from that make more of an effort to have a decent plot and characters.
However, I gave in and went to see “Age of Extinction,” mostly out of curiosity to see the Dinobots. And I have to admit (don’t judge me!) that I enjoyed this one. Can I defend it as a great movie? No — but it was fun.
The plot is admittedly rather convoluted. The main character is Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor and salvager who discovers a Transformer that turns out to be Optimus Prime. Both Transformers (the “good” robots) and Decepticons (the “bad” robots) are treated as enemies who must be hunted down and destroyed, but Yeager decides to protect Optimus. What follows is a rather complicated adventure that involves the CIA, an intergalactic Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown, the (sort-of) return of Decepticon leader Megatron, and the arrival of the much-publicized dinosaur Transformers, the “Dinobots” (trust me, you’ll enjoy the movie much more if you don’t try to think about it too much).
The film does run too long, clocking in at almost three hours, and it takes too long for the Dinobots to show up (they don’t appear until the film’s final third). All the issues that director Michael Bay regularly takes flak for show up again here: more effort spent on special effects than plot, too many characters that aren’t fully realized, and a major requirement for suspension of disbelief.
But Bay is helped in this installment by Mark Wahlberg, as well as Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobs-esque ruler of a tech empire. Wahlberg is a much more likable lead (sorry, Shia LaBeouf!) and the film benefits from his charisma. Tucci is also obviously having a great time chewing scenery as the arrogant, eccentric Joyce. The film has some genuinely funny moments, and no matter how cynical you are, watching Optimus Prime ride into battle on a T-Rex Dinobot is all kinds of awesome.
This movie won’t end up on my “best of 2014″ list, but for a $5 summer matinee movie, I felt I got my money’s worth.