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Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron Review (2015) - SPOILERS!!!


The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015;
Marvel Studios)
Going into the Avengers: Age of Ultron I had high hopes.  I think everyone did.  I made a point to not check out information on the movie.  I stayed away from online sources containing anything about the film and its cast and went in entirely objectively and unspoiled.  I begin the movie wanting to know two things: How did they pull of the Ultron storyline and how badass was Scarlet Witch?  I essentially satisfied in both respects.  That does not, however, mean Age of Ultron is a perfect movie.

The problem with making a sequel to a movie as big as the Avengers is it will be very hard to top it.  Initially, I was unsure about what they were going to do, but by the beginning of the third act, I was pretty certain I had guessed at exactly what was going to unfold by the film’s conclusion with around 60% accuracy.  The movie steps things up by having the swarms of enemies that were certainly meant to be more menacing than the Chitauri, and is successful in that… kind of.  Early in the movie, a struggle breaks out with a group of Stark’s automaton sentries that come off as would-be cannon fodder but there is a sense of menace with the team battling just a handful of Stark’s creations.  However, by the end we see the Avengers decimating hundreds of them with little-to-no effort.  Did they discover their weak points?

This is a recurring problem in Age of Ultron, too.  Action scenes are built up and are, for the most part, concluded and only briefly addressed until we get to the end and the lead characters find themselves facing off against Ultron’s hoards in the climactic battle.  However, each scene that has a strong start is often cut into with momentary lapses in tension.  A key character is killed and we get a few moments of sadness, followed by more explosions, then he’s never really addressed again.  A major event will occur, and will be negated or disregarded almost as quickly as it began.  This goes most notably for the film’s anti-climax.  It ends exactly how you expect it would by the start of the third act and it just sort of peters out.  It literally ends with a bang but hits like a shot from a Nerf gun, really.  Honestly, it feels like a step down from the New York set piece in the first movie.  This isn’t helped by the fact that it uses one of the most cliched and most often-horribly done evil-plan cliches and does it well, but only as well as this goofy, overused premise can be done.

Other major problems occur in the characters.  The first Avengers had a small team of characters and we are able to get a lot of characterization in their interactions.  However, Age of Ultron goes the sequel route of adding so many characters (nearly doubling the size of the team by the end of the movie) that most of their little moments end up lost in the shuffle.  I appreciate the attempts to flesh out some of the more overshadowed characters from the first movie (like Hawkeye, for instance) but this is still the Robert Downey, Jr. Show.  I do not blame Whedon for this, though.  RDJ’s magnetism is on full display, driving up the arrogance and intellectualism of Tony Stark much more than the first movie.  He’s still a wise-ass, but he comes off as more of the brilliant character he is in this outing.  Yet, the problem with having such a big cast and only a few characters dominating the foreground is you have a lot of questions, and a lot of characters that really just feel pointless.  Quicksilver suffers this in many respects, as he is mostly just relegated to “clean-up duty” while his much more prominent sister, Scarlet Witch is elevated to full-on goddess (even though, in-canon she is significantly more-powerful than almost all of the other Avengers).  She gets her big moment.  Quicksilver doesn’t.  Don Cheadle makes his appearance as War Machine which is welcome, but he is also given next to nothing to do, and just feels like a pointless addition in the end.

Now, with all of the negatives aside, this is still a good movie.  It isn’t complex.  It will not wreck your brain-area with convoluted exposition and over-blown pseudoscience.  It gives you just enough to lay the foundation for some truly well-done action scenes.  Like in the first film, Joss Whedon lines up wonderful moments of kineticism with smart, interspersed, and occasionally funny dialogue.  Sure, some of the action scenes go on a little long, but they never drift into Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich-Level CGI Porn.  Instead, each scene is clearly-lit, everything is vivid and easily discernable (with a few brief exceptions) and the layout of each scene is solid.  Whedon also employs his trademark single, long tracking shots that flow to each character nearly-seamlessly multiple times and it’s always a welcome technique, never coming off as exploited or poorly done here.

Acting is good all-around.  The only truly weak performance comes from Linda Cardellini, who I liked in ER and loved in Freaks and Geeks, but here, she just plays Worried Pregnant Housewife #2.  Despite having a direct association with one of the MAIN characters, she’s wasted.  We cut back to the occasional worried-wife-shot then back to the action.  The editing in that one cut to her is awkward, too.  It just felt… off.  That said, James Spader was immensely entertaining as the ultimate super-intelligence, Ultron, though his reasoning does fall squarely into Final Fantasy villain territory.  Aside from that, there really was no reason to have a big supporting cast.  This is the Avengers’ show and do you know what?  That’s okay.  That is exactly what we all went to see, and Joss Whedon seems to recognize that.  He didn’t flood the movie with too many pointless subplots (there are a few, but they aren’t too awfully intrusive) and, thanking all that is holy, no obnoxious comic relief characters that are so endemic in action movies these days.  

Now I’m going to touch on Ultron a little more as a villain here.  As I said, James Spader is awesome and I do not think I’ve ever disliked a performance from him.  Even when he’s in a bad movie, Spader still busts his butt to craft a memorable character for the audience.  His inflections work very well in the role as his subtle, personal touches on Ultron’s voice gives the entity life.  Lesser writers would have just made it a cold super-T-800-style-villain-bot.  However, Whedon knows how to write characters and its dialogue, mixed with Spader’s performance makes a nice blend.  That said, in all of his efforts, I think Whedon failed to really build Ultron up to be the force it really is.  Ultron’s a powerful dude here, for sure.  Is it menacing?  Yes.  Yet, by the end of the movie, one of the most powerful figures in comic book lore is dispatched in an anti-climax that has it fade away quicker than it appeared.  With the rest of the action scenes in this movie lasting in the 10-20 minute range, the fact that the final showdown that leads to the villain’s end lasts only about two minutes in total was just a big letdown.  Note that I’m only referring to the machine Ultron built for himself, disregarding his consciousness in the rest of the sentry bots because… well, so does the movie.  This was all an obvious hint at Ultron’s return.  Which, it seems, will certainly happen.

My final thought is as a big, loud, packed action movie.  This one is a lot of fun.  It’s accessible, there’s nothing in it that’s too disturbing for younger audiences, nor does it feel like a cartoon.  It is a well-balanced movie overall.  I would say it’s probably the lesser of Whedon’s most recent film projects factoring in the first Avengers movie AND Cabin in the Woods (which he co-wrote), but it’s not obnoxious outside of being about thirty minutes too long, and it has enough fun action moments and entertaining dialogue that I would give a whole-hearted recommendation.  It won’t be topping any “greatest action movies” lists, but it’s definitely better than most of what we get from Hollywood these days.  Given the chance, I’d see this again.  It’s a balanced movie and though I feel Joss Whedon is a much, MUCH better character writer than he is an action film director, I respect his choice to make an accessible movie that cuts the fat and delivers exactly what fans want.  The Avengers: Age of Ultron a pretty fun movie.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Animation Therapy - Turbo Teen (1984)

Turbo Teen (1984; ABC Network)
Sometimes there’s a show that is both very easy to describe yet impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.  That said, I cannot fathom a scenario where the people behind Turbo Teen weren’t met with either uproarious mocking laughter, or an irritated slap to the face.  A lot of the shows I really got into were from the late 80’s, so this was just shy of that period for me, and it was too big of a failure to really maintain any post-run momentum in syndication or home video that I recall.  Now, even as a kid I was very picky and didn’t like a lot of the shows my friends did either because of the way the characters looked, or because of the show’s pacing or tone (not that I really understood what that meant back then, but it’s a quality that is often recognized without definition).  So, I guess even then I was sort of a jerk when it comes to entertainment (wink).  That begs the question: Do I regret watching an episode now?  Nope!  Because this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life!

The awesomely stupid premise for Turbo Teen is as follows: Brett Matthews is a teen driving home from work in his sports car when a tree is struck by lightning, forcing him to swerve and sending him flying off the road, over a cliff and into the side of a secret lab where he crashes right into the path of a ray that merges the molecules of Brett’s body with those of the machine’s, giving the teen the power to transform into his car.  When exposed to heat (hot water, food, ect.) Brett uncontrollably takes the form of his car where cold then turns him back (Where have I heard a similar premise before..?)  Together with his friends Patti and Alex (who have skills of their own) and Comic-Relief-Dog, Brett goes on crime-fighting adventures against powerful enemies.  Yes!  This exists!!!  I am SO happy about this!

In the 80’s there was no absence of bad animated series.  Really, the quality spike didn’t peak until the late 80’s when Disney Animation Studios started hitting their stride and series like Transformers and G.I. Joe reached their pinnacle.  Things will stay good for a while until the airwaves became flooded with bad knockoffs and celebrity-themed animated shows like Wishkid (THAT damn show’s day is coming…).  Before that, there is this strange dead zone filled with bland animated tripe from Hanna-Barbera Productions (who were already starting to fade in quality by that point) and a few other companies like Dic, for instance.  Turbo Teen lands somewhere in-between debuting in 1984 and lasting just one season.  It never really gained an audience, probably because it is such a ludicrous premise that a kid may find it more stupid than anything.  It takes a few years (or decades) for a show like this to re-emerge and become a sort of cult favorite.  I think, from what I’ve seen, Turbo Teen is ripe for that sort of cult rebirth.

Now, as out-there as the show’s premise is, knowing the episode I saw as a jumping-off point will make things even more enticing.  The episode is entitled “Video Venger” and opens on the teens playing an arcade game but when Brett has a piece of pizza land on his face he transforms into his car right there in the Pizza parlor while playing the game.  Still wanting to beat Alex’s highscore, Brett has his friend plug him into the arcade cabinet via a universal cable in his dashboard so he can control the game as a car.  This causes a military insurgent group monitoring the game to unleash an army of robots onto the city resembling enemies from the game and only the Turbo Teen and his friends can save the day.  This episode ends with the group saving the President by having two ice-firing tanks crossfire into each other through some Turbo-Teen-Trickery right in the White House… driveway..?  Ultimately the President awards them with medals.  

Okay, so if I missed anything it could be that while watching this I was mesmerized by its existence and was also somewhat distracted with bouts of hysterical laughter.  There is so much stupid in that last paragraph that I can understand you wondering why I would recommend this to anyone.  All I will say is, if you’re a fan of over-the-top, so-bad-it’s-good entertainment, and are just in awe by really, really awesomely bad TV in-general, you will probably love this show.  If you go in with the right attitude, you may be surprised by how much enjoyment you get out of it.  I went in expecting it to be one of the worst shows of the decade by reputation.  It isn’t.  The worst animation from the 80’s-90’s is either boring, a cheap cash-in, or is MEANT to be funny but isn’t.  This is none of those things.  It’s too insane to be boring, there really isn’t much like it (unless you pick out parts from about six different shows), and it isn’t really meant to be a comedy.  It’s an action show.  Sure there are gags in it but for the most part it was played straight.  I love so-bad-it’s-good stuff and this is up there for me.  I enjoyed the Hell out of Turbo Teen!

Watch Turbo Teen: Video Venger in Cartoon | View More Free Videos Online at

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Generation Wars: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) vs. TMNT (2007)

Now, I know I’m not the first person to do this, but I would like to see how many of these classic series have evolved over the years and I decided to start this series with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  

Originally based on Mirage Comic’s violent cult series of the same name (created by the duo of Laird and Eastman), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their mainstream debut in the late 80’s.  Now, it’s important to note that this was a time where a lot of major companies were seeing great success with animated series based on toy tie-ins.  The two biggest ones before TMNT were G.I. Joe and Transformers.  These two series drew huge fans to the stores to buy every toy for everything they saw on the 30 minute TV series.  The fact was, these shows really didn’t have much in terms of plot.  They were really just toy advertisements.  The same goes for a lot of hit series from the time, including The Real Ghostbusters and Thundercats.  Then came 1987…

‘87 was a bad, BAAAAD year for movies, but on TV, things were changing.  Some of the biggest shows ever made their debuts in this year.  Three notable entries were Star Trek: The Next Generation, Duck Tales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  The latter of the two did something very different.  Unlike a lot of their tie-in contemporaries, these two animated series attempted to craft short stories around existing characters with established relationships and arcs.  They weren’t Shakespeare, but they were smart, funny and entertaining.  These two shows were essentially responsible for the huge boom of Saturday Morning animation in the late-80’s and early 90’s, a genre that was starting to fade a little at the time.

Fast forward to 1990.  A series as big as Ninja Turtles was not going to escape the Hollywood treatment, and on March 30th, fans of the series were treated to a hard-edge, energetic, fun and somewhat edgy action flick.  This was NOT a kids movie, in spite of its rating.  It had pacing, action, and the characters that were mostly known by everyone at that point were treated well in terms of their nature and relationships.  It must be said, that if you did not grow up in this period, you likely have no idea just how massive this series was.  Compare it to anything big today, and you may be close, but just short.  TMNT was a phenomenon, and it was everywhere.  So much so that it never actually went away.  The series lasted well into the 90’s, running for nearly a decade (that was HUGE for an animated series), and other animated shows, comics, games, movies (to a lesser extent) and other spin-offs continued to come out.  Still, the question is, does the 90’s movie hold up?

Well, not too long before writing this article I went back and watched it and was astonished by how good it still is.  No, seriously.  The action was good, the characters were spot on, they stayed true to the overall story and, thanks to help from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the Turtles themselves were amazing.  The movie hit the nail on the head, transporting the Turtles out of the realm of 2D and bringing them to life.  Naturally the movie was a big hit.  The sequels… not so good, though.  They didn’t hold up and tried too hard to be more kid-friendly, ultimately losing some of the momentum the first film built.  This was partially in-response to some backlash that the first film was “for kids” but was too violent and dark for a few parents to handle… Boy how times have changed.

As a sort of hiatus, the Turtles went back to the shadows and remained out of the mainstream for a short time until being revitalized in a new 2007 animated film.  TMNT debuted to mixed reviews.  It sits at a 37% on Rotten Tomatoes and was generally panned by critics.  Two things are wrong with this picture.  First, having watched the movie, it was not a bad film; not by any means.  It was certainly better than a 37%.  I have SEEN what a 37% looks like and it’s a Hell of a lot worse than this.  No, I think there was some backlash to the tone in some cases.  First, the new movie addresses some of the things that were just glossed over in the original film and series more directly, in-particularly, April O’Neil’s restlessness and Raphael’s rebelliousness.  The latter is a prominent plot point early in the movie as it is an established and ongoing trait of the character.  No complaints there.  

Another point of contention is the 2007 film’s plot.  The story revolves around an ancient immortal warrior who is able to resurrect his ancient generals when the stars align, and with the moment right, he can open a portal to conjure up monsters and take over the world.  It’s like something out of a Final Fantasy game, and it’s goofy, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen from that type of story.  The other subplots involve a barely glossed-over relationship between fellow-vigilante Casey Jones and April O’Neil and the returning theme of Raphael’s lone crime fighting ways.  What I liked about TMNT is how it addressed the latter.  Leonardo, who returns from a prolonged absence of self reflection, finds his family in disarray and is faced with bridging a severed relationship with Raph.  It turns out, another armored vigilante hero has been taking out thugs around New York and Leo, in an attempt to stop him, finds that this so-named Nightwatcher is actually Raphael.  This leads to the two brothers having a nearly-fatal brawl on the rooftop.  As a long-time fan of these characters, THIS was satisfying to me.  It was the obvious and inevitable result of their rough relationship and at that point I was sold.

As a standalone movie, TMNT is not a masterpiece, but it does what it set out to do: Make a fun and solid TMNT adventure.  The only real complaints I have about the movie is it has that odd, jagged CGI animation a lot of series do today, that has these 3D characters with Disney eyes that looks sort of odd in the high-detail world around them, and a few of the “chase” scenes are a little overlong and are basically just filler.  These long action scenes make the few more meaningful ones seem longer than necessary by association.  Lastly, the plot is nothing fresh or astonishing, but it sets the stage for some cool character design for the villains, and a few pretty solid fights.

Really, I do not see why this has such bad reviews.  It is NOT a bad movie.  It’s faithful, it was obviously made by people with a lot of love for the source material, it has a lot of quality animation (especially in the case of the Turtles) and the attention to detail in the production design is great.  I also like that they didn’t go overboard with references to the old series.  Sure they’re eating pizza, Splinter is watching soap operas and Casey Jones is donning his trademark hockey mask, but it isn’t abused and shoved in our faces like a lot of throwback remakes and reboots tend to try to do.  It’s respectful is what I’m saying.

So, which one is better.  Well, in this case it really isn’t a contest.  The 1990 film was engaging and had warmth as well as tension.  There is just something about seeing these characters in the “real world” that brings them to life.  Also, practical effects always look better than CGI and while at least the 2007 movie is entirely animated, the tangible Turtles from the earlier film are much more believable.  For anyone who didn’t grow up during Turtlemania, I would say watch the original movie.  It is not too dissimilar but definitely feels more real and, on the whole, is a much better movie.