I once again find myself late to the watercooler party in finally getting around to watching the sequel to Marvel’s Avengers. When the Whedon directed Age of Ultron made its debut some four months ago, it created no small amount of controversy among the impassioned internet masses. Despite making more money than God, AoU had a decidedly more mixed reception from fans for reasons ranging from odd character choices to continuity errors and straight up plot holes. Having waited until the proverbial shitstorm died down to take a look myself, I’m rather glad I did. I can definitely empathize with some of the issues my fellow nerds had with the movie, but on the whole, I still liked it quite a bit: enough, in fact, to consider it on par with the original.
The preceding statement is by no means a declaration of worship towards the movie, though. I consider AoU as good of a summer superhero blockbuster as the first; enjoyable through its fantastic action scenes, interspersed with Whedon’s as-always entertaining dialogue to add humanity to even the least human characters while we wait for them to begin smashing stuff again. That being said, the characterization is uneven in its quality, and at times perplexing as to why the director decided to take a particular direction. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s get some background and take a look at some of AoU’s strengths while I set up the ol’ cinematic dissection table. Continue reading
Normally, the Madagascar movies annoy me. There are a few good jokes, sure, but the amount of zany humor, puns, and slapstick stuff clearly intended for a super-young audience irritates me enough that it’s probably my second least favorite Dreamworks franchise (the first being Shrek). That being said, one of the few shining lights for me within those movies were the penguins, and it baffled me why it took three movies for the squadron of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private to get their own feature. 2014 remedied that, and brought with it what I think to be far and away the strongest film of the series.
In Penguins of Madagascar, the titular penguins find themselves caught up in the schemes of revenge-driven octopus Dave (John Malkovich) to use his somehow-obtained genetics degree (just roll with it) to create what he calls The Medusa Serum in order to take vengeance on the penguins of the world. Because of their cuteness, he was shunned from zoo after zoo and has been plotting and recruiting an army of cephalopods ever since.
The penguins aren’t alone, though. Also on the trail of Dave is a secret animal task force with inexplicable access to heavy weaponry called the North Wind, headed by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), and staffed by the brawny Corporal (Peter Stormare), espionage expert Ava (Annet Mahendru), and demolitions specialist Short Fuse (Ken Jeong). Classified and his crew must contend with the bumbling-yet-effective penguins in order to stop Dave from turning his super-weapon on the penguins he’s kidnapped from around the world.
The voice acting pretty much across the board here is pretty fantastic. You might have noticed the star-studded cast that Dreamworks brought in for this production, and I’m normally skeptical when on-screen actors step into a voice role, because talent in one field doesn’t necessarily translate into another. in PoM, I was pleasantly surprised particularly with Cumberbatch, who plays the stodgy and frustrated Classified perfectly. Part of the credit for that definitely goes to the animation department though, as they perfectly capture his mannerisms, even in the form of a cartoon wolf. Malkovich is suitably insane as Dave, and reminded me a lot of Will Ferrell in Megamind. The writing for his character is probably the weak point in the film, but the charisma that Malkovich brings to the role helps to (at least somewhat) balance that out.
The shining star of performance in here though is definitely the rapport between the Penguins themselves. Tom McGrath’s Skipper reminds me a lot of Billy West’s Zapp Branigan from Futurama mixed with Patrick Warburton, and Chris Miller’s Kowalski is the perfect Spock-esque straight man to accompany him. Christopher Knight’s performance as Private is the heart of the movie, as Private aspires to be something more than a cute mascot to the team. He’s the character who undergoes the most growth in the film, and his arc is the glue that holds it together. That being said, it’s a credit to the comedic writing here, together with its tight pacing that the script being somewhat character-light doesn’t really hurt it at all. Conrad Vernon rounds out the team as Rico, a character who doesn’t really talk so much as make sounds and eat stuff. That being said, until I looked up who played the role, I thought that Rico’s Tazmanian Devil-esque growls and gibberish were courtesy of Dee Bradley Baker, and anyone who is a fan of voice acting can attest that that’s a colossal compliment.
For the large part, I loved the comedy writing in the film. When the penguins are on their mission it’s usually a combination of visual gags and quick dialogue that evokes Laurel & Hardy meets the Three Stooges. The friendship and rapport between the characters and their respective specialties (Skipper the leader, Kowalski the tech guy, Rico as demolitions/assault, and Private as… distraction, usually) is super-fun, especially when in an almost Mr. Magoo like fashion, their talent for improvisation causes them to repeatedly fall backwards into success despite their clearly having no idea what they’re doing. Skipper’s one-liners are great (“Ah, Beijing’s famous Little Dublin district!”, “Whoa, tone down the moxie, sass-mouth!”) and had me at the receiving ends of confused stares from train passengers when they caused me to laugh out loud. Most of the flaws in PoM can be overlooked just because the gags and frenetic pace make it just so damn fun to watch. Most, but not all.
The movie occasionally falls victim to the kind of lowest-common denominator, “zany” humor that I can’t stand from the other Madagascar films. One particularly groan-worthy running joke has to do with the names of Dave’s henchmen and their similarity to certain movie stars. The joke is LITERALLY nothing other than Dave saying their name, and then an action that sounds like the corresponding last name of the actor. Once or twice, it’s lame but bearable. But this is a well that the movie goes back to AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN to the point where you just go, “ENOUGH already. The comedy writing is otherwise great and well-timed here, so what happened? Did the director’s nephew with the lobotomy take a tour of the writer’s room for the day and mess with the script?”
That and the lazy falling back on the use of a couple fart jokes was a little disappointing, but the humor by and large hits the mark with rousing success such that I ended up having a great time watching it. In any other year not populated with movies like How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Book of Life, this movie would be an Academy Award nominee. However, even in an especially strong year for animated features, Penguins of Madagascar puts forth a strong display; and one worth going out of your way to see.
When I first sat down to watch Fury, I was tempted to remark how it was nice to have a WWII era movie where Brad Pitt isn’t attempting to eat his own upper lip the whole time. But once my internal peanut gallery shut its whore mouth while Fury was talking, I found myself on the receiving end of one of the most intense emotional experiences I’ve had in a war film. It’s grim, grisly, heartbreaking, and tragic, but also bleakly beautiful. As a result, Fury is probably one of my favorite films to come out this year.
Earth to Echo is not a movie I’d call original by any stretch. It heavily borrows from the same ET model that Super 8 a few years back, but in my opinion does a better job with it by focusing less on spectacle and more on the character relationships.
The movie stars three friends: Munch, Alex, and Tuck, who’s families are being forced to move when a freeway is set to built going through their neighborhood. On their last night together, the three decide to ride out into the night to investigate a strange electrical disturbance messing with the phones of everyone in the area.
The signal turns out to originate from a crashed alien pod containing a small, robotic extraterrestrial that the kids nickname ‘Echo’, for his ability to mimic and manipulate sound. From there, the story revolves around the trio, joined eventually by a fellow classmate from their school named Emma, helping Echo track down the pieces of his ship so that he can return home. However, as you might expect from the E.T. template, there are others in search of Echo, looking to capture him and disable his ship.
Bryan Singer returns for the latest installment of the popular franchise, and it results in easily the strongest of any non-Disney Marvel Film to-date in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Based off of the seminal comic run by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin, the film starts in a bleak future where super-adaptable robots called Sentinels have pushed both mutants and humans to the brink of extinction. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen reprise their roles as Professor X and Magneto, using the powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to stop this apocalypse from happening.
Back in 1973, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), designer of the Sentinels, in an attempt to stop their production. However, the opposite occurred, with his death convincing the government that they needed the Sentinels to combat the mutant “threat”, they used Mystique’s DNA to bio-engineer the Sentinels’ capacity to adapt and nullify any mutant power. To stop this from happening, Wolverine must bring together the younger Magneto and Xavier (Michael Fassbender and James MacAvoy) and stop Mystique from beginning down the dark path to their mutual destruction.
I really wanted to like this movie. I really did. Seeing Pacific Rim last year re-ignited my childhood passion for watching giant monsters punch each other, and the cast and crew that Legendary Pictures put together gave me faith that they were finally going to give the proper respect and significance to one of the most iconic franchises both in Japan and here. The thing is, they tried. They really REALLLLLY tried. That’s what makes my feelings about the film that much more tragic. The performances across the board range from solid (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen) to great (the always incomparable Bryan Cranston), and the amount of atmosphere built up in the first hour had me sold that when the shit finally went down, we’d finally get the kaiju smackdown to end them all.
“Why Hulk get no love?” I know for me, and for many whom I’ve spoken to, one of the most pleasant surprises of Marvel’s The Avengers was Mark Ruffalo’s turn as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. After much beloved actor Ed Norton was unceremoniously removed from the role, many questioned whether Ruffalo would have the chops to pull off the nuances of Banner’s inner struggle with the beast that has so entrenched itself as a part of his identity. In my opinion, Ruffalo pulled off the role with grace and aplomb, and the decision to model the Hulk using motion capture effects similar to those used with Andy Serkis in his performance as Gollum succeeded where I felt previous iterations failed: making Hulk feel like an organic extension of Banner’s character.
Ever since John Lasseter ascended to nigh-godhood as the overlord of all things Disney Animation, his former fiefdom, Pixar, has been in somewhat of a slump. While not making horrible films, offerings such as Brave, Cars 2, and Planes have fallen far from the standard set by the likes of The Incredibles and Toy Story. The opposite side of this coin is that it seems the films made by Disney animation proper have been likewise improving, as indicated by Tangled, as well as the colourful and imaginative Wreck-It Ralph. Disney’s latest, Frozen, continues this positive trend, offering a fun-filled ride with breathtaking musical numbers, hilarious writing, and a surprisingly (in a good way) feminist message for the young lasses in the audience.