(In theaters, May 2015) Few movies exemplify the mid-2010s blockbuster movie trend as thoroughly as Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s the apogee-so-far of the superhero movie, it’s practically designed to be the kind of film to save movie theaters from bankruptcy and/or irrelevance and it’s crammed with characters, action sequences and special effects. You don’t get any more “tent-pole film” than this sequel to 2012’s massively successful The Avengers, and the onslaught of commercial tie-ins on TV makes it look as if the film trailer is playing three times per hour. Interestingly enough, Avengers: Age of Ultron is even a competent movie: It juggles a dozen characters with some ease, meddles with current-zeitgeist issues of technology run amok, revolves around exceptionally dynamic action sequences, benefits from good banter and leaves viewers with a sense of upbeat progress. Robert Downey Jr is still a delight as Tony Stark, Chris Evans is still as good as Captain America, and Jeremy Renner gets a lot more to do here. Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in many ways, a better film than its predecessor. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have, and that’s the element of pleasantly exceeded expectations. Marvel Studios has defied tremendous odds in bringing its comic-book universe to the big screen, but as far as the whole “team of superheroes vanquish impossible threat” thing is concerned, it’s been done. So it is that while Avengers: Age of Ultron may be fun and fizzy, it does feel like a repeat, and a harbinger of things to come as something like thirty comic-book movies are scheduled to appear on-screen in the next five years: the melodramatic conventions that sustain comic-books only have a limited shelf life on-screen, and the lack of character development in those films can’t forever be papered over with reboots or fake promises of change (like the Hydra/SHIELD plotline, so promising at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and yet so casually dismissed here). I did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I’m wondering how long such movies can remain the flavor of the moment.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) Call it encroaching old age, but I’m getting a bit tired of mashups combining historical references with monsters. Whether those monsters are zombies, vampires, robots or (in this case) witches, and whether those familiar references are fairytales, established genres, historical figures or classic fiction, the result often doesn’t have anything to offer but a blend of buzzwords. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter! Jack the Giant Killer! The concept becomes the crutch, and once you’ve grown accustomed to buzzword blending, there’s often nothing beyond the high-concept. All of which to say that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is nothing more than what it says in its title (ie; grown-up fairy-tale heroes become witch hunters… I told you it was the title), and that it doesn’t do much with its own premise. There is a bizarre mixture of high comedy (most absurdly a reference to a missing kid picture on a milk carton) and low horror that never quite solidifies into something meaningful. Many of the action sequences repeat themselves, and the occasionally-good visuals doesn’t excuse the film’s overall tedium. What’s too bad is that I quite like Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, but neither have much to do here aside from running and shooting. (Famke Janssen does seem to have fun playing pure evil, though.) The script is weak and contrived –especially when it comes to the heroes going back to their childhood home and discovering that their backstory means something in the current moment. While the martial anachronisms can be amusing, most notably by providing Big Guns to dark-ages heroes, the film doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the assets at its disposal. The problem with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t its premise; it’s that it’s just its premise.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) You’d think that the ending of The Bourne Ultimatum wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sequel, but there we have one: The program that created Bourne was only the tip of the iceberg, and other operatives are forced to react when their own programs (and selves) are terminated with prejudice. Add a few considerations about artificial cognitive enhancements and you have a plot: a threadbare, familiar plot, but a plot nonetheless. Fortunately, writer/director Tony Gilroy’s treatment of the premise is better than its foundation: The Bourne Legacy proudly continues its predecessor’s hyper-modern treatment of espionage thriller conventions with an acknowledgement to real-world moral dilemmas, high-technology used lethally and an exploitation of the possibilities of a network world under constant unaccountable surveillance. The blend is potent, and the headlining presence of both Jeremy Renner as a capable protagonist and Edward Norton as his pursuer anchors the film into a credible reality. (Amusingly, the film is able to use in a straightforward fashion a few speculative elements that would have been considered pure science-fiction a few years ago.) For its first hour, as mysteries are still presented, The Bourne Legacy is solid action filmmaking: the action scenes are well-handled, the atmosphere is grounded and the plot mechanics are decently handled as the film takes place concurrently to The Bourne Ultimatum. Things slow down to a far more ordinary result in the second half, as the plot stops advancing almost entirely and leaves all the screen time to an increasingly redundant chase sequence. The final result may not be as compelling as what was promised earlier, but it’s still a surprisingly energetic follow-up to a series most thought was finished. Don’t worry –from the unresolved threads left by the conclusion of The Bourne Legacy, it looks as if we’ll get at least another trilogy our of the Bourne name.
(In theatres, September 2010) Who would have thought that barely seven years after the nadir of Gigli, Ben Affleck would re-emerge as a significant director of Boston-based crime dramas? Strange but true: After wowing reviewers with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is back with another Boston thriller in The Town, this time taking a look at a gang of professional bank robbers as one of them begins a relationship with an ex-hostage of theirs. Deceptions accumulate alongside complications as the gang keeps planning heists, the FBI is tracking them closely and the lead character wants out of his own life. It’s the complex mixture of crime, action, romance and drama that makes The Town work, along with a clean direction, a good sense of place and a few capable actors. Jeremy Renner is once again remarkable as a hot-headed criminal, whereas Jon Hamm gets more than his fair share of good lines as a dogged FBI agent. The script feels refreshingly adult, full of difficult entanglements, capable performances and textured moral problems. The adaptation from Chuck Hogan’s novel is decent, although most readers will be amused to note that a movie theatre heist has been replaced by something else entirely. More significant, however, is the flattening of the FBI agent character and the far more optimistic conclusion of the film –in the end, the movie feels more superficial in general but also more satisfying in its closure. The Town isn’t flashy, though, and this may be what separates it from a longer-lasting legacy. No matter, though: it’s a good a satisfying film, and one that confirms what Affleck is now capable of accomplishing.
(In theatres, July 2009): There can be such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the second hour of this film is a case in point: What starts out as a tight episodic war thriller with uncanny suspense sequences eventually loosens its grip on the audience and meanders on its way to a meaningful conclusion. Don’t be fooled: even with its loose and predictable third act, The Hurt Locker still is one of the best action films of the year, and one of the best Iraq war movie so far. But a better-controlled film would have been even more powerful. Director Kathryn Bigelow makes a welcome return to the big screen and shows from the start that her action sequences can be as good as anything else: The Hurt Locker’s best moments (including the hair-raising image on the poster) are in the half-dozen action/suspense sequences putting us far too close to American bomb-defusing experts working in Baghdad. This film justifies the whole quasi-documentary handheld-camera aesthetics to a level of clarity that other glossier filmmakers can’t even imagine: As a depiction of war-driven action, it’s as good as it gets –a fortunate achievement for a film that focuses on the adrenaline junkies for whom war is a continuous peak experience. There are a few familiar faces among the supporting characters (including Ralph Fiennes as a foul-mouthed English mercenary), but it’s the relatively-unknown main characters that make the strongest impression: In particular, Jeremy Renner is a revelation as a loose-cannon protagonist whose motivations eventually become the crux of the film. Despite the meandering subplots that shed a lot of energy in the latter half of the picture (and the accumulation of inaccuracies to pump up the drama at the expense of realism –how handy that one of our lead sappers is also a sniper!), The Hurt Locker remains a strong piece of cinema, and one of the rare war films about Iraq to make its point with little partisan content. It’s both exhilarating yet realistic, reaching out to both the action-movie fans and those who think that war is hell.