CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

CivilWar poster

Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

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One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

My Bottom 10 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

During the past two years that I’ve run this website, I have created a “Best of” list at the end of each December. I neglected to make a “Worst of” list because of my misguided belief that I shouldn’t further shame the films that I’ve already ridiculed with negative reviews. In 2015, things have changed and I’ve decided (at least for this year) to make a Bottom Films list to go along with my Top Films list. 2015 was a great year for films overall, but also had more than its fair share of flops. The following movies made me want to pull my hair out in frustration and weep quietly in the theater for having wasted money. Before I post my Top Films of 2015, I decided it would only be appropriate to get my picks for Bottom Films of 2015 out of the way first.

There were ten movies this year that wasted precious hours of my life that I’ll never be able to get back. Before getting into those, I’ll begin with a few dishonorable mentions. 2015 brought me two very shitty found footage horror flicks in AREA 51 and THE GALLOWS. Though it was marginally better than its predecessor, INSURGENT was still a hot mess of every recent young adult novel combined. THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED came off like just another bland, generic action flick, making the Statham predecessors look like DIE HARD in comparison. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 was a piss-poor follow-up to one of my favorite comedies of this past decade. Finally, PAN was a letdown on pretty much every level. I mean, Blackbeard sings Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Captain Hook fights a kung-fu warrior. Enough said. None of those aforementioned films are on my bottom ten though. So, without further ado, let’s move onto my picks for ten worst films of 2015:

10. Blackhat

10. BLACKHAT: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time, Michael Mann made masterful films like MANHUNTER (the first adaptation of RED DRAGON), HEAT (the awesome pairing of De Niro and Pacino), and COLLATERAL (one of my all-time favorite thrillers). Mann’s latest thriller, about an international hunt for a dangerous hacker, seemed like it could be a relevant and exciting fun time at the movies. However, I was fighting to stay awake when I sat through this endurance test in an auditorium populated by a total of six other attendees. BLACKHAT is boring and when it’s not boring, it’s stupid beyond belief. One of the dumbest scenes of the year occurs in the final third of this film in which Hemsworth duct tapes magazines around his chest to create a make-shift bullet-proof vest. I think that scene speaks volumes for the film by itself.

9. Hellions

9. HELLIONS: I managed to catch three movies at this year’s Sundance film festival. Two of those were quality horror films and nestled in-between them was this abomination. The initial set-up sounds like a feature-length version of the final segment from TRICK ‘R TREAT. A girl is terrorized by demonic trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. I was hoping for something weird and spooky, seeing as the director behind this film created the unconventional zombie flick PONTYPOOL. HELLIONS is definitely weird, but not in a good way. A misguided attempt to shoot in infrared makes everything appear pink. The acting is wooden. The story goes nowhere and becomes incomprehensible after the first 20 minutes. At the very least, the film is so bad that it’s funny, but not enough to recommend this low-budget disappointment.

8. Lazarus Effect

8. THE LAZARUS EFFECT: For some reason, half of the movies on this list are horror films. That wasn’t intentional, especially since it’s been a pretty good year for the genre. However, THE LAZARUS EFFECT is about as generic and confused as a genre film can get. The premise is cool and sounds like a modern-day take on FLATLINERS. However, the screenplay just cannot decide which direction it wants to take with the material. Is this movie about hell and demons? Is it supposed to be a Frankenstein-like science gone wrong tale? Is the main villainess supposed to be the horror equivalent of Lucy from LUCY? Apparently, it’s all of these things…plus a string of cheap jump scares and a group of insufferably annoying characters.

WOMAN IN BLACK 2

7. THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH: The first of four sequels on this list, WOMAN IN BLACK 2 was the first official wide release of 2015…and what a crappy release it was. I actually dug 2012’s WOMAN IN BLACK  as a spooky little ghost movie and hoped that this sequel would be more of the same. The ghost who kills children is practically handed a plate of potential victims and then does nothing remotely interesting with them. The visuals give a look of an atmospheric ghost story, but cheap jump scares and a bland script make this the epitome of everything wrong with modern big-budget horror movies.

6. Joe Dirt 2

6. JOE DIRT 2: BEAUTIFUL LOSER: Confession time. I like the first JOE DIRT. I really do. It’s a stupid, crude and moronic flick, but I enjoy it as a fun guilty pleasure. For whatever reason, I was sort of looking forward to this straight-to-Crackle sequel. Aside from three decent chuckles, the film is a long laughless slog of a sequel. It seems content to merely reference the original film, instead of tell its own white-trash story. The film moves from bad set-piece to bad set-piece for nearly two hours(!) before ending in the biggest cop-out conclusion imaginable. Not even an endless supply of buffalo wings and beer could make this film enjoyable.

5. Contracted 2

5. CONTRACTED: PHASE 2: A follow-up to 2013’s better-than-expected body-horror flick, this sequel was clearly made as a cheap cash-in for the small audience that enjoyed the original. CONTRACTED 2 is shoddily written and badly directed by people who clearly had no interest in the original film and it shows. Despite running at only 78 minutes, the experience feels agonizingly long. The first CONTRACTED was an interesting body-horror take on an overpopulated subgenre, while this sequel is just another terrible low-budget zombie flick. CONTRACTED 2 also has the balls to put in two end credits scenes that are clearly setting up for PHASE 3. Count me out!

4. Seventh Son

4. SEVENTH SON: Studio delays and February release date aside, I was hoping that SEVENTH SON would be entertaining. I wasn’t expecting high art, but I was expecting something watchable. My hopes and middling expectations were bashed to pieces by a lame fantasy that was dull as dirt. This flick stands alongside CIRQUE DU FREAK, ERAGON, and THE SEEKER as one of the worst young-adult adaptations to ever hit the big screen. Jeff Bridges is damn near incomprehensible as the drunk monster-killer, while Oscar winner Julianne Moore should be embarrassed for playing the cheapo looking evil witch. The effects try to be ambitious and cool, but come off as boring and unconvincing. This movie proves that a guy killing monsters can somehow be made boring. Yet another potentially cool young-adult film series bites the dust.

3. Mortdecai

3. MORTDECAI: Johnny Depp has a moustache and goofy teeth. Isn’t that funny?!? No? Well, that’s too bad, because the makers of this film seem to think it’s a riot. Based on a series of British comedic novels, MORTDECAI very well might be the worst film that Johnny Depp has ever starred in…which is quite a feat in and of itself. This bland caper comedy unsuccessfully tries to mimic a PINK PANTHER sense of humor, but doesn’t get any of it right. The laughs are dusty. The performers look like they want their scenes to be over as fast as humanly possible. If the movie had been about Paul Bettany’s bodyguard character, it would have been far funnier and more original. 2015 was a year that featured one of Johnny Depp’s best performances (BLACK MASS) as well this being his worst.

2. Human Centipede 3

2. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3: FINAL SEQUENCE: I didn’t walk into HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 with high expectations. I liked FIRST SEQUENCE and disliked FULL SEQUENCE. The FINAL SEQUENCE of the ass-to-mouth trilogy was set in a prison, starred the main villains from the first two films, and aimed for a comedic meta-approach to the material. It would be nice if we actually got a human centipede before the final 20 minutes of the running time. Up until that point, the viewer is subjected to a various list of on-screen atrocities which include a jar of clitorises being devoured, someone raping a kidney, a graphic castration and the list goes on. I can appreciate shocksploitation (I really enjoyed Eli Roth’s GREEN INFERNO), but HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 executes all of its gory gusto with the production values and “talent” of a basement porno. What could possibly be worse than this film?…

1. Fantastic Four

1. FANTASTIC FOUR: FANTASTIC FOUR is the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen. This dark, gritty reboot of the goofy comic series makes the 2005 and 2007 films look like classics in comparison. To be honest, this movie doesn’t feel like a movie at all, but rather a 125 million dollar excuse for Fox to keep the franchise rights away from Marvel Studios…which is appropriate because that’s why this movie was made in the first place. I enjoyed the director’s previous effort (CHRONICLE) and like a number of the performers here (Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Toby Kebbell), but there’s no excuse for the unbelievably terrible quality of this film. FANTASTIC FOUR is a complete and total failure. I’d rather sit through BATMAN & ROBIN, ELEKTRA, and CATWOMAN in a marathon from hell than ever endure a repeat viewing of this movie ever again.

Here’s hoping for less bad movies in 2016…

LEGEND (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, some Sexual and Drug Material

Legend poster

Directed by: Brian Helgeland

Written by: Brian Helgeland

(based on the book THE PROFESSION OF VIOLENCE by John Pearson)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, Taron Egerton, Paul Bettany, Colin Morgan, David Thewlis & Chazz Palminteri

I like gangster movies. If you’ve read the site for a while, I think that becomes quickly apparent. So when I discovered that Tom Hardy (one of the best modern actors) was playing the Kray twins in a new big-budget crime flick, I was excited beyond words to say the least. The promotional material looked stellar and the real-life story behind the Krays is an interesting one. Seeing as LEGEND expanded its release this Thanksgiving weekend, I drove out to the only theater in my state that was playing the film. While I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad or mediocre effort, LEGEND is definitely a disappointment. This film should have been amazing, compelling and had potential to be a new gangster classic. Instead, it’s a pretty standard, slightly tedious affair with many problems and two great performances (courtesy of Tom Hardy).

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Reggie and Ronnie Kray are twin gangsters living in the East End of London. Reggie is a calm, collected, suave guy who just happens to run illegal operations out of his night club. Ron is a psychopathic, bloodthirsty lunatic who thrives on chaos and disorder. While Ron’s insane tendencies threaten to upend the Krays’ hold on London, Reggie makes deals with the American mafia and falls in love with Frances Shea, his friend’s sister. We watch as their relationship gets complicated as Reggie tries to keep the rabid Ron on a very short leash.

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Out of all the reviews (even negative ones) and commercials for LEGEND, the one thing that’s being praised over and over is Tom Hardy’s dual performance as Reggie and Ronnie Kray. Without a doubt, Hardy is the best thing about this otherwise by-the-numbers flick. As Ronnie, Hardy evokes a somewhat sympathetic gangster with a mean streak that comes out when he loses his cool. As Reggie, Hardy is a tour-de-force of lunacy and mixes dark humor with a vicious no-holds-barred lunacy. The way in which he acts off of other performers and, especially, himself warrants a viewing. His performances are phenomenal, but they are the best thing in an otherwise all too familiar and disappointing film.

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One big issue that comes into play is that the screenplay kicks off with the Krays already near their peak. Little is given about their past and how they reached their powerful status. While other crime flicks might seem stereotypical in showing the rise and fall of a fictionalized mafia, LEGEND has the benefit of being based on a real life case of twin gangsters. You don’t often see that and it’s a shame that the producers didn’t take advantage of the early events in the Krays’ crime career. As a result, it takes us a little while to get fully invested in this film. Even when we do, LEGEND doesn’t know what it wants to focus on. Sometimes, it’s about how Ronnie and Reggie are at odds with each other. During other moments, we see Ronnie’s crumbling relationship with Frances. Finally, the film begins to show us a complex investigation by Scotland Yard and then ignores all of that until the underwhelming climax.

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Emily Browning is a strong actress to take the screen with Hardy in both roles, but the movie exploits unneeded exposition-filled narration from her to move itself forward. To make things slightly more annoying, Browning’s narration gives way to some hyperbolic statements like “What Ronnie would do next would make him a legend in gangster history.” when what actually follows is relatively tame (especially considering that Whitey Bulger gunned down an informant in a parking lot full of witnesses earlier this year). David Thewlis (a corrupt associate), Paul Bettany (a rival gang leader), and Chazz Palminteri (the American mafia contact) all show up for a couple of scenes each. Their roles are rather thankless and should have been expanded upon. Instead, we’re treated to more useless scenes of Reggie wooing Frances in this supposed gangster story.

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LEGEND has its moments. A darkly comical pub fight being one of them. A brutal execution being another. The quarreling amongst the brothers is fun, especially when Reggie confronts the agitated Ronnie in a near deserted night club. The film has strong visuals and the effects bringing two Tom Hardys to the screen at once are flawless. This is the best use of two performances from one actor since 2011’s THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE. I just feel that so much potential was lost in LEGEND being unfocused, messy and by-the-numbers on a lot of accounts. Though Tom Hardy’s performances make the film worth a rental, I’d say to keep your expectations relatively low. LEGEND isn’t nearly as legendary, let alone good, as it probably should have been.

Grade: B-

MORTDECAI (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language and Sexual Material

Mort poster

Directed by: David Koepp

Written by: Eric Aronson

(based on the novel DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn & Jeff Goldblum

Full disclosure: I didn’t have high hopes for MORTDECAI. Seeing as the backlash against this film is substantial and it has become one of the biggest flops of the year thus far (right behind JUPITER ASCENDING and BLACKHAT), my expectations were set pretty low for MORTDECAI. At the most, I was hoping for a couple of laughs and a guilty pleasure (ala I, FRANKENSTEIN). Even with these tepid feelings going in, MORTDECAI still wound up filling me with hatred against every ounce of this movie. It’s the worst kind of bad film there is: an unfunny comedy.

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Charlie Mortdecai is a moustached art dealer who happens to sell stolen goods and elaborate faux replicas. Though his family was wealthy and he still holds an estate, Charlie is on the edge of bankruptcy and financial ruin. When he’s recruited by an inspector (who happens to be a former friend with a crush on Johanna, Charlie’s wife) to track down a stolen painting that is also being hunted by various groups of dangerous people (Russian thugs, a thief named Emil, and Hong Kong gangsters). This leads to many wild, crazy antics with Mortdecai constantly being thrown into harm’s way with Jock, his man-servant, constantly getting him out of these sticky situations. While Charlie is away, the Inspector is also trying to start an affair with Johanna. If none of those things sound the least bit entertaining, then don’t worry because there’s also a lame subplot about Mortdecai’s newly grown facial hair.

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Director David Koepp has been involved with cool projects in the past, but MORTDECAI definitely is the worst thing he’s ever slapped his name on. To be fair, Koepp didn’t write the screenplay, but it feels like this film is trying desperately to get laughs. It throws everything at the wall and nothing sticks. There are fish-out-of-water situations with Charlie being in Los Angeles, awkward puns, bits of innuendo, and even room for brief puke and fart humor. Every single one of these sight gags, puns and scenarios feels dusty. One character even says the same joke twice in the space of 15 seconds in an attempt to get at the very least a chuckle. While the line is dead on arrival the first time it’s uttered, hearing it repeated a second time really hits home how MORTDECAI is beating the skeletal remains of a dead horse that has long since decomposed. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the R rating is wasted as this felt like a PG-13 flick all the way through. No profane language (save for one instance) or any jokes push the envelope. It’s as tame as can be.

MORTDECAI, Paul Bettany, 2015. ph: David Appleby/©Lionsgate

The film becomes downright unbearable during the final 30 minutes. I was tempted to give up and turn this movie off. That almost never happens when I’m watching a film either. I usually have no urge to do anything else but stick the film out until the end credits begin to roll. The real problem is that MORTDECAI feels like it has an ending and then continues forward for 30 more minutes of horribly unfunny material. It shouldn’t come as a shock that every performer isn’t exactly at the top of their game in this one. Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow seem disinterested in the movie they’re making (I can’t say I blame them). Johnny Depp is cashing in on the typecast cartoon character that he’s recently become known for playing (hopefully BLACK MASS turns that around this September). It’s clear that Depp was trying to channel a Peter Sellers sort of Clouseau character, but even Steve Martin did it better in those mediocre PINK PANTHER reboots. The only one who seems to be having any fun is Paul Bettany as Jock, but he still didn’t get any decent laughs or lines.

MORTDECAI, Johnny Depp, 2015. ph: David Appleby/©Lionsgate

MORTDECAI is awful. It’s beyond awful, this is anti-comedy. This is the sort of film that you could show someone and it could entirely turn them off the concept of laughing ever again. It’s clear that this was nothing more than a quick paycheck for everybody involved and I’m so very glad that it tanked at the box office. MORTDECAI is a depressing, laugh-free waste of time that just might go down as the worst film in Johnny Depp’s career. Yes, I’m also taking TRANSCENDENCE into consideration when I say that.

Grade: F

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

Ultron poster

Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and a mild Drug Reference

Avengers poster

Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany & Powers Boothe

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through various origin stories and connections, Marvel released a number of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA) with the intentions of leading up to a massive epic AVENGERS movie that comic book geeks never thought they would receive in their wildest dreams. While the films leading up this 2012 summer blockbuster ranged in quality, THE AVENGERS fast became a critically acclaimed blockbuster that ranked as one of the biggest money-makers in the history of film. Everybody loved this movie and most still do, but I don’t fawn over it as much as everybody else seems to. THE AVENGERS is hugely entertaining, but far from perfect thanks to three problems.

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Top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting with the Tesseract (an infinity stone) and find themselves in a bit of trouble. The evil Loki has come to our world with the goals of using the infinity stone for evil and dominating all of mankind. It’s up to special agent Nick Fury to assemble a ragtag group of superheroes to form the Avengers. They might not get along with each other, but this team of heroes is here to save the day. It’s Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army of intergalactic conquerors.

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The biggest pleasure of watching THE AVENGERS is to see this group of Marvel superheroes interact with each other. You get to watch as Iron Man gets into arguments with Captain America and forms a friendship with the Hulk. There’s also Thor being aggressive towards everyone as well as the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team being wary of Bruce Banner to much comic relief. Seeing as these characters have been developed through separate movies (save for Black Widow and Hawkeye), there’s no real need for extra character development. It’s a cast of actors slipping right back into their established roles with ease. Black Widow is a good character on her own, but Hawkeye is underdeveloped (though that’s mainly the result of a plot device in the first 5 minutes).

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The biggest drawback character is Loki as the main villain. He’s already been given his time to shine as the bad guy in THOR, but we’re expected to find him just as interesting in THE AVENGERS (having already seen Thor beat his ass once already). While Tom Hiddleston is funny in the role, he just isn’t that great of a threat for the Avengers. The rest of the baddies are a bunch of faceless aliens that really aren’t given much of a purpose other than to be beaten by the Avengers. For a movie that was set up as an action-packed superhero extravaganza from beginning to end, AVENGERS takes an awful long space of time just focusing on the team members squabbling with each other on their floating S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It’s as if this movie that was clearly setting itself up as a fanboy’s wet dream decided to take a break in order to build supposed tension and that doesn’t really work out in the movie’s favor.

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As far as the spectacle itself is concerned, AVENGERS looks huge and feels epic. The action set pieces are entertaining and it’s a blast to watch this well-known group of mismatched heroes working together in a climax set across the streets of New York. There are plenty of one-liners, fights, and explosions to go around. Everything looks great with one problem and it’s a big one. The Hulk is really cheesy. Mark Ruffalo is quite good in the role of Bruce Banner, but the CGI monster that he turns into looks pretty silly compared to everything else around him. It’s possible that we’ll never see a Hulk who looks perfectly rendered because, well, the Hulk isn’t that great of a hero to begin with. However, even the Hulk from 2008’s INCREDIBLE HULK was a lot better than this green Ruffalo-resembling creature. It doesn’t distract from any of the awesome scenes featuring the other heroes, but he’s pretty dumb looking by himself. That being said, a scene between him and Loki is pure gold.

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Overall, THE AVENGERS is a lot of fun. That being said, it’s far from a perfect movie. Hell, there are even films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have managed to outdo this one (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). The running time is bit too long and the design of Hulk looks pretty silly. Also, we’ve seen Loki before and I wish they could have given us a better villain. With all these things in mind, THE AVENGERS is a highly entertaining comic book film that delivers the goods. I do think it’s a bit overrated, but there’s hope that AGE OF ULTRON could manage to one-up this in every possible way.

Grade: B+

TRANSCENDENCE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action and Violence, some Bloody Images, brief Strong Language and Sensuality

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Directed by: Wally Pfister

Written by: Jack Paglen

Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany & Clifton Collins Jr.

In the grand cinematic scheme, science fiction has been used to tell intelligent, creative stories with relevant social commentary at the center. TRANSCENDENCE frequently tries to get across how much society depends on technology (after all, you are reading this review on an electronic device of some kind). This point has been made in plenty of other films and is kind of overplayed. With an interesting story, the message could possibly be made worthwhile again. TRANSCENDENCE is not an interesting movie. This thriller of science gone very wrong is muddled, ridiculous, and doesn’t do a thing worth engaging the viewer’s interest. It’s a boring, stupid film that wastes a good cast. The real mystery is how first-time director Wally Pfister (who has only worked as a cinematographer) and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen got this stinker funded on a huge budget. Judging from the near-empty theater I saw this in (a Friday evening), TRANSCENDENCE has a good chance of deservedly flopping.

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Will Caster, Evelyn Caster (his wife), and Max Waters are part of a research team designing the ultimate Artificial Intelligence. This self-aware system has the potential of being more powerful than the combined intellect of everyone in the entire world. The idea is a little creepy and one could see things easily going wrong with this creation. An anti-tech terrorist group (known as Rift) foresees the potential disaster and kills the staff of nearly every A.I. lab in the country. An assassination attempt is made on Will’s life and it leaves him poisoned with a month left to live. Desperate to keep her husband around, Evelyn uploads his consciousness to the A.I. they were constructing. After exhibiting some disturbing behavior, a few people decide there’s a definite possibility that this new sentient system isn’t actually Will.

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TRANSCENDENCE is a film that tries too hard to have focus on deeper issues (including an ending that’s contradictory to everything that has come up to that point). The introduction to the story reveals where things wind up by the end of the story. Thus first-time director and first-time screenwriter pair both ruin the biggest possible surprise that might have come in the finale by showing it in the first five minutes. This is the first sign that Pfister might not be at the same level of skill directing-wise that he clearly demonstrates in cinematography.

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The screenplay handles the supposed deeper message of the movie in a heavy-handed fashion. It’s all about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the groin. The twists the film takes along its way become more convoluted as the story trudges along. The movie runs for two hours and feels so much longer than that. There’s a good space in the middle where nothing much happens and it’s just exposition for the climax. Speaking of which, the ending almost feels like there was this ideology surrounding it that this conclusion would be profound and deeply emotional. I’ve seen people defending it online and one woman was actually crying in my theater during it. She may have been sobbing just because she realized she would never receive those two hours of endurance back into her life. TRANSCENDENCE is a poorly made failure of a film.

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Despite the large budget that graces it, the production values feel very cheap. Most of the CGI is unconvincing. The cast of familiar A-listers are all phoning it in. With this dud, Johnny Depp seems to be in a bit of a cinematic rut. Here’s hoping that his next project boosts him out from this series of bad movies. Rebecca Hall doesn’t garner much sympathy as Evelyn Caster. Paul Bettany is no stranger to big-budgeted wasted opportunities (PRIEST, LEGION) and he isn’t given much to do in TRANSCENDENCE. His role isn’t of much importance, seeing as he disappears for a solid stretch of time. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy both are wasted too. If anyone shines out, it’s Depp (regulated to a computer monitor for most of the movie) and he’s playing an A.I. so not a whole lot of emotion was required, therefore not a whole lot was given.

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If there’s any consolation to be given, it’s that TRANSCENDENCE might not have had the potential to be a winner from day one. It’s essentially a big-budget remake of THE LAWNMOWER MAN with a couple of preachy messages thrown in. It’s a silly, poorly acted, and boring mess. Thus far, it’s the worst film I’ve seen in 2014! TRANSCENDENCE doesn’t wind up transcending any of its problems and falls victim to being a shitty movie. It’s not worth your money, let alone your time! This is one project that needed to be shut down from day one!

Grade: F

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