“THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” (2015) Review

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“THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” (2015) Review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which first began back in 2008, edged closer to the completion of its second phase with the release of “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”. This second film featured the return of the team of superheroes that saved Earth from an alien invasion in the 2012 film, “THE AVENGERS”.

In reality, the movie began with the “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” Season Two episode, (2.19) “The Dirty Half Dozen”, in which Phil Coulson and his team managed to infiltrate a HYDRA base led by one Doctor List and discover the location of the secret base of the evil organization in the fictional country of Sokovia. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”opened with the Avengers in Slovakia, attacking the HYDRA base. Despite Clint Barton aka Hawkeye’s injury and the team’s encounter with HYDRA’s new superhumans, Sokovia natives Pietro and Wanda Maximoff aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch; the Avengers prevail by arresting HYDRA leader Baron Wolfgang von Strucker and obtaining the Chitauri Scepter used by Loki in the 2012 movie. However, Tony Stark aka Iron Man has an encounter with the telepathic Wanda Maximoff that leaves him with visions of the entire Avengers team dead (except him).

Upon the team’s return to Tony’s Manhattan penthouse, which is being used as their headquarters; he asks fellow Avenger Thor Odinson if he could examine the scepter before the latter can deliver it to Asgard. Thor acquiesces and both Tony and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk discover one of the Infinity stones (Mind Stone) within the scepter. They also discover that the stone has an artificial intelligence. Tony decides to use the stone complete his idea of an “ULTRON” global defense program – an artificial intelligence that controls robotic armor to protect Earth from future danger. Unfortunately the ULTRON program becomes sentient. He believes that he must eradicate humanity in order to save Earth. So ULTRON eliminates Stark’s A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S., and attacks the Avengers at their headquarters. ULTRON escapes with the scepter and uses the resources at Strucker’s Sokovia base to upgrade his rudimentary body and build an army of robot drones. After killing Strucker, ULTRON recruits the Maximoffs, who hold Stark responsible for their parents’ deaths by his weapons. Once the Avengers learn what Tony and Bruce had created, they set off to track down ULTRON and prevent the latter from carrying out his agenda for the destruction of humanity.

I might as well put my cards on the table. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” is not as good as its 201 predecessor. I fear that writer-director Joss Whedon may have gotten a little sloppy with the execution of his story. The first problem I had with the movie is its use of the HYDRA organization. Since 2014’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER revealed that HYDRA leader Baron von Stucker was in possession of the Chitauri scepter, it is obvious that Whedon used HYDRA for the Avengers – especially Tony Stark – to get their hands on it and the Mind Stone. More importantly, he wanted to use the Mind Stone for the creation of both ULTRON and the newest Avenger team member, Vision. But after the movie’s opening action sequence, Stucker was captured and later killed by ULTRON, making his appearance in the film a complete waste of time. In fact, it seems as if the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been hellbent upon the misuse of HYDRA since Season Two of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Personally, I wish that producer Kevin Fiege had allowed the HYDRA/Chitauri scepter plot line to be used for the third Captain America film and allowed both ULTRON and Vision to be created without the Mind stone. And why on earth did Whedon allowed the Mind stone to contain artificial intelligence? Was this an attempt by him to remove a possible supernatural or spiritual aspect of the Infinity Stones, due to some lack of religious beliefs?

What other problems I had with the movie? Honestly, I found the action sequences in the movie rather over-the-top. I was not that impressed by sequence featuring the Avengers’ attack upon the HYDRA Sokovia base and their final showdown against ULTRON in the same location. And if I must be brutally honest, I was especially put off by the fight between Iron Man and an enraged Hulk (courtesy of Scarlet Witch’s mind games) in the fictional country of Wakanda (home of the Black Panther). Speaking of the movie’s final action sequence, I was not particularly fond it. I hated the methods ULTRON used to finally destroy humanity. What did he do? ULTRON used vibranium from the old HYDRA base to build a machine that would lift a large part of Sokovia’s capital city skyward and crash it into the ground in order to cause global extinction. And I had to sit inside that movie theater and watch the Avengers battle robots and ULTRON in a city that was rising in the air. There was a point in which I found the whole thing simply fucking ridiculous. Speaking of robots . . . the sight of ULTRON’s killer droids brought back memories of the Sentinels from 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, a movie that is not high on my list of favorite Marvel flicks. And there was the vision that Thor had received from the Scarlet Witch. One, how on earth did a human managed to force an image upon an Asgardian? Especially one as powerful as Thor? Two, was this vision supposed to be of Wanda’s creation . . . or a genuine vision of the future? I do not recall the Scarlet Witch possessing the talent of precognition. And why was Thor’s dream or vision edited in such a choppy manner? It is a miracle that I managed to understand it in the end.

The movie also featured the death of a major character in the film. Whedon claimed he wanted to reveal the emotional impact of war. Personally, I think he wanted to rectify his decision to resurrect the Phil Coulson character for “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”, who had originally been killed off in “THE AVENGERS”. And frankly, I found it unnecessary. The MCU could have saved a character death for the third “AVENGERS” film. Speaking of characterizations, I was not particularly thrilled by Whedon’s handling of some of the minor characters. As I had earlier pointed out, I thought he had mishandled the HYDRA story line that began in “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Which meant he also mishandled both the Baron von Stucker and Dr. List characters and wasted the time of actors Thomas Kretschmann and Henry Goodman. I was really looking forward to watching Kretschman’s portrayal of the HYDRA leader. And what the hell did Whedon to do the James Rhodes aka War Machine character? Poor Don Cheadle! Whedon turned his character into a one-note joke, as Rhodey continuously recalled the time he saved the President’s life in “IRON MAN 3”. Even though he helped the Avengers save Sokovia’s citizens in the final battle, Whedon still decided to make Rhodey a “machismo” joke. Only Cheadle’s skillful comic acting skill made Anthony Mackie made two brief appearances as Sam Wilson aka the Falcon – during the victory party at Stark Towers and in the final scene in which he had joined the Avengers at their new headquarters in upstate New York. That is all. Perhaps he was filming another movie at the time. Who knows? But Whedon really wasted his role in this film. Another wasted performance came from Cobie Smulders, whose appearance and relevance as Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed to be shrinking with each film. As for Stellan Skarsgård’s performance as Dr. Erik Selvig, it appearance seemed to be a case of “now you see him . . . now you don’t”. At least Idris Elba’s Hemidall managed to have a stronger impact on the story, due to his appearance in Thor’s vision. And Hayley Atwell’s appearance as Peggy Carter in Steve Roger’s vision had a strong impact on his psyche.

It is a good thing that I actually managed to enjoy “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” very much . . . despite its flaws. Fortunately, the movie possessed a lot more flaws than virtues. The ensemble created for the film seemed strong as ever . . . especially in the sequence featuring the Avengers’ victory party at Stark Towers. Although I was not that enamored of the ULTRON storyline idea, I must admit that overall, Joss Whedon managed to make it work. Whedon did an excellent job of connecting the dots between the HYDRA base attack, one of the Infinity stones and the creations of both ULTRON and Vision. And the two characters that served as the connections to these different aspects of the plot were Tony Stark and Thor. I never understood why Nick Fury sent the Avengers after Baron von Strucker and HYDRA. There were plenty of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents still around who could have done the job. But it made sense that Thor would want to retrieve the Chitauri scepter, since it contained one of the Infinity stones. And knowing Tony’s penchant for curiosity, it made sense that he would want to examine the scepter. Whedon even managed to create connections between Tony and the Maximoff twins – Wanda and Pietro. Missiles created by Stark Industries were responsible for their parents’ deaths.

It was a relief to see that Whedon did not shortchange the major characters. Although previous MCU movies have shown some of Tony Stark’s more unpleasant traits, he really came close to being very unlikable in this film. This was especially obvious in the scene in which Tony refused to acknowledge his mistake in creating ULTRON. Robert Downey Jr. did a great job in conveying Tony’s ugly side and at the same time, still maintain the character’s “hero” status. I feel that “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” also conveyed a good deal of Bruce Banner’s ugly nature as well . . . and I am referring to those scenes in which he did not morph into Hulk mode. Mark Ruffalo gave a sweet performance as a Bruce who seemed to be developing feelings for former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. But there were moments when Bruce did not seem that likable. Some have cited that one moment in which he threatened to harm Wanda Maximoff. I can think of two other moments. He seemed incapable of understanding Natasha’s own personal demons during one conversation between them . . . to the point that he eventually ran off, making their potential romance all about him. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” finally verified that Natasha had been trained in the Soviets’ Red Room Academy, the same organization that Leviathan agent “Dottie Underwood” had been trained in the ABC series, “AGENT CARTER”. Natasha’s visions, along with her conversation with Bruce, made it clear that her training had left scars on her psyche. Scarlett Johansson performance certainly made this clear . . . especially in the scene in which she revealed Natasha’s demons in a conversation with Bruce. It was a truly superb moment in an otherwise first-rate performance by Johansson.

Jeremy Renner had more ample time to shine as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and expert marksman, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye. Not only did we see Renner interact with the cast a lot more, but audiences were allowed an in-depth look into his personal life as a happily married man and father. In many ways, Renner’s down-to-earth performance as Barton served as the film’s emotional backbone. One would think that role should have belonged to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers aka Captain America. However, I got the feeling that Steve was still reeling from the aftermath of the events from “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” and his continuing grief over the loss of Peggy Carter, as shown in Steve’s heartbreaking vision of a possible date with Peggy at a 1940s nightclub. It is amazing how much Evans has made the Captain America role his own after three films. Hell, he made it his own back in the 2011 film. Chris Hemsworth’s role as Thor did not strike me as “major” in compare to the other members of the Avengers team. Without the presence of Thor’s half-brother Loki, I got the feeling that Whedon did not really know what to do with him . . . other than help create Vision. But Hemsworth’s performance was my favorite in the film. That man has such a superb comic timing. And he providing some of the film’s funniest moments, including that hair-raising moment in which Steve nearly lifted his hammer, Mjolnir. Samuel L. Jackson gave a very interesting performance as former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. He seemed rather introspective . . . almost weary. At first, I wondered if Jackson had become tired of the role. But he had made clear his desire to continue portraying Fury beyond his current contract. I suspect that Jackson was conveying the toll of Fury’s worldwide search for HYDRA bases and agents and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s downfall.

James Spader gave one hell of a performance as the voice for the artificial intelligence being, ULTRON. Spader gave one of those memorable voice performances that I believe I will never forget. Since ULTRON is Tony Stark’s creation, it seemed as if Spader was portraying Stark’s personality . . . but with his own particular twist. It was an interesting and brilliant performance to watch . . . or hear. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” proved to be the first role in which I have seen actor Aaron Johnson-Taylor portrayed an extroverted character – namely Pietro Maximoff aka Quicksilver. And being the first-rate actor I have always believed he was, Johnson-Taylor did an excellent job in conveying Pietro’s impulsive nature, protectiveness toward his twin sister and cockiness – especially in his interactions with Clint Barton. In fact, his ability as a speedster seemed to correlate well with his personality. And who portrayed his twin sister? None other than Elizabeth Olsen, who portrayed his wife in the 2014 blockbuster, “GODZILLA”. Man, the irony! And she gave an equally superb performance as the more serious, yet emotional Wanda Maximoff, who possessed the talents of telepathy and telekinesis. Paul Bettany, who had served as the voice of Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence program, J.A.R.V.I.S., acquired a new role in the MCU. He is now portraying Vision, an organic-based android who eventually became a member of the Avengers. Bettany gave a very skillful, yet ethereal performance. His Vision struck me as a quiet, naive being, with a surprising penchant for wise and occasionally sardonic barbs. The movie also featured solid supporting performances from Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Idris Elba, Andy Serkis and Julie Delpy.

What else can I say about “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”? Well, nothing really. The movie’s special effects and musical score by Hans Zimmer did not exactly blow my mind. Come to think of it, Ben Davis’ cinematography failed to impress me, as well . . . even if I found his work competent. But I thought it lacked the sharp and colorful beauty of the 2012 movie. In fact, I would go as far to say that “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” is not as good as “THE AVENGERS”. But . . . it did continue the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s main narrative. And this continuation was marked by Josh Brolin’s appearance as Thanos in the movie’s first post-credit scene. “AGE OF ULTRON” may not have been perfect or even near perfect. But I thought it was still a first-rate film.

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1993) Review

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1993) Review

Alexandre Dumas’ classic 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers” must have been one of the most adapted stories in film and television history. I do not know exactly how many adaptations have been filmed. But I have seen at least four of them – including Disney Studios’ version, released in 1993. 

Directed by Stephen Herek, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is not a faithful adaptation of Dumas’ novel. David Loughery’s script utilized some elements of the novel, including most of the characters and d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his three friends and fellow musketeers. But in the end, he created his own story. In “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, a young Gascon named d’Artagnan hopes to follow in the footsteps of his late father and join the King of France’s Musketeers in 1625 France. Unfortunately for d’Artagnan, several factors stand in his way. One, he makes an enemy out of a local aristocrat named Gerard and his brothers, who believe he has defiled the honor of their sister, and is pursued by them all the way to Paris. Two, upon his arrival in Paris, he discovers that the Musketeers have been disbanded by King Louis XIII’s chief minister, the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu. And three, his encounters with Musketeers Athos, Aramis and Porthos results in him accepting a duel from each man.

Fortunately, d’Artagnan’s hostility toward the trio is short-lived and he ends up helping them battle Richelieu’s guards, who arrive to arrest Athos, Aramis and Porthos. But after they leave him, d’Artagnan is arrested by more guards and Richelieu’s lackey, Captain Rochefort. While in prison, he meets the Cardinal and overhears a conversation between the latter and spy Milady de Winter. She is ordered to deliver a signed treaty to France’s primary enemy, the Duke of Buckingham of England. Cardinal Richelieu plans to undermine the King’s authority, before assassinating him, taking the throne and Queen Anne as consort. When Athos, Aramis and Porthos rescue d’Artagnan from execution, the four men set out to expose Richelieu as a traitor of France and save King Louis XIII from death.

Fans of Dumas’ novel will probably be unhappy with this adaptation, considering that it failed to be a faithful one. I must admit that when I first saw “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, I was surprised and a little disappointed myself. And there were a few aspects of the movie that I disliked. The addition of Gerard and his brothers into the story really annoyed me in the end. Mind you, I found the aristocrat’s determination to confront d’Artagnan at the beginning of the movie tolerable. But once d’Artagnan reached Paris, with Gerard still in hot pursuit, the subplot became an annoying running joke that refused to die. And it did not. I like Paul McGann as an actor . . . but not that much.

Even worse, McGann’s Gerard seemed to have more screen time than any of the major female characters. Although I never viewed Queen Anne as a “major character”, I felt otherwise about Milady de Winter and d’Artagnan’s lady love, Constance Bonacieux. I did not mind when Loughery’s script transformed Julie Delpy’s Constance from the Queen’s dressmaker to maid/companion. But I did mind that her role was reduced to a few cameo appearances. The same almost happened to Rebecca De Mornay’s portrayal of Milady de Winter. I personally found the reduction of the latter role rather criminal. Milady has always been one of the best villains in literary history. And nearly every actress who has portrayed her, did justice to the role. I can say the same about De Mornay, who was excellent as Milady. Unfortunately, Loughery’s script gave her very few opportunities to strut her stuff.

Despite the change in Dumas’ story and the reduction in the females’ roles, I cannot deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”proved to be a first-rate and entertaining movie. It had romance – well, a little of it. The best romance in the film proved to be the long simmering one between Athos and Milady, whose marriage had earlier ended in failure. And I found the one between d’Artagnan and Constance rather charming, if brief. The movie featured some great action, including a marvelous chase scene in which the Musketeers are being pursued by Rochefort and the Cardinal’s men; d’Artagnan’s first sword fight, in which he allied himself with the Musketeers; Milady de Winter’s capture at Calais; and especially the final fight sequence in which the Musketeers prevent Richelieu’s plans for the King’s assassination.

Tim Curry made an entertaining, yet splashy Cardinal Richelieu. He came close to being all over the map, yet he still managed to keep his performance controlled. And Michael Wincott’s sinister portrayal of Captain Rochefort was superb. Rebecca De Mornay was superb as Milady de Winter, despite the role being reduced. And her Milady has always struck me as the most complex in all of the adaptations. Julie Delpy and Gabrielle Anwar were charming as Constance and Queen Anne. I wish I could say the same about Hugh O’Connor as King Louis XIII, but I must admit that I was not that impressed. He was eighteen years old at the time and probably a little too young and stiff to be portraying the 24 year-old monarch.

But the highlight of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” proved to be the four actors who portrayed d’Artagnan and his three friends – Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They were perfect. Chris O’Donnell captured every aspect of d’Artagnan’s youthful personality – the earnestness, cockiness, and immaturity. Watching the movie made me realize that he has come a long way in the past nineteen years. And he had great chemistry with the three actors who portrayed the Musketeers. Kiefer Sutherland was perfect as the commanding, yet cynical and disillusioned Athos, who regretted ending his marriage to Milady. The producers of this film certainly picked the right man to portray the smooth-talking ladies’ man, Aramis. And whatever one might say about Charlie Sheen, he did a superb job in the role. Oliver Platt was a delight as the brash and extroverted Porthos. Quite frankly, he made a better figure for comic relief than McGann’s Gerard. However, the best thing about the four actors’ performances was that they all perfectly clicked as a screen team. All for one and one for all.

Yes, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” was not perfect. What movie is? And it is certainly not the best adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel. But I cannot deny that it was entertaining. And I have no regrets in purchasing a DVD copy of this film. If one can keep an open mind over the fact that it was not a close adaptation of the 1844 novel, I think it is possible to find it very enjoyable.