Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Full of Fun Surprises

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Three stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction; suggestive comments)
141 minutes

Thor, Captain America and Iron Man may be the flashiest, most popular Avengers but they’re also, arguably, the least compelling members of Marvel’s superhero collective.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has fabulous hair, a big hammer and wrestles with Shakespearean family drama.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is decent and square and also kinda sad that everyone he ever knew and loved is now dead.

Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, is Steve Jobs with better hair, nicer clothes, more charm and an obsession with technology that is both an asset and an Achilles heel.

These guys are great and all, but they’ve each starred in at least two solo movies apiece. By now, we know pretty much everything there is to know about them.

So it’s an unexpected pleasure that “Avengers 2: Age of Ultron” devotes its attention to characters who spent a lot of time lingering in the background in 2002’s “Avengers.”

At last, we discover everything we’ve ever wanted to know about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the stoic archer who skulked through the “Avengers” in a Loki-induced trance.

We also find out just what is going on between him and lethal assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who piqued our curiosity with the tiny gold arrow she wore around her neck in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

The relationship isn’t quite what we expected and that’s half the fun of “Age of Ultron.” The movie brims with enjoyable little surprises, from cameo appearances by minor characters to clever winks to previous Marvel outings.

The Hulk finds romance. Black Widow gets to be vulnerable as well as spectacularly lethal. Maria Hill actually cracks a few jokes (only natural considering she’s played by funny-girl Cobie Smulders).

Jarvis the computer, who has always been one of Iron Man’s most sharply sketched personalities, thanks to Paul Bettany’s tart voice work, undergoes a delightful evolution.

If the Marvel movie franchise has become an almost impossibly tangled web, director Joss Whedon is a nimble spider, spinning off dozens of new plot threads, wrapping up neat, little moments for a vast ensemble of characters, deftly interweaving CGI spectacle and satisfying emotion. This is movie-making on an unprecedented, gargantuan scale. It’s no wonder the guy needs a break.

When it comes to theme, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t break much new ground. United, the Avengers stand. Divided … well, not so much.

The glories of the team’s combined might are illustrated in a prologue that sees the superheroes working in perfect harmony as they ambush a Hydra base in the snowy woods of the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia.

Our band of heroes emerge victorious with a new toy for Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to play with, containing one of the infamous infinity stones that Marvel villains are always after. They also acquire a pair of new enemies, eerily gifted Sokovian twins played by Emily Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

When Tony starts poking into the infinity stone’s properties, back at the shiny S.H.I.E.L.D lab — or at least the corrupted organization formerly known as S.H.I.E.L.D — he discovers alien technology perfectly suited to realizing his pet project: an artificial intelligence program powerful enough to enforce world peace.

Without bothering to consult the other Avengers, Stark talks the skeptical Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into helping him create the super program known as Ultron. Apparently, these guys have never seen “The Terminator,” because the being they spawn is a malevolent, red-eyed robot who misinterprets his mission to disastrous effect.

Once again, the Avengers begin to doubt each other, especially as Olsen’s Scarlet Witch — a welcome new female presence in the testosterone-filled Marvel landscape — unleashes her witchy powers of mind control upon them, causing them to relive painful pasts and envision future fears.

Leading the clash of consciences are Stark and The Cap, whose dueling philosophies on power and peace put them deeply at odds. (Could this be the beginning of a certain Civil War?)

At this point, the Marvel universe has become so complicated — spanning multiple galaxies, planets, dimensions and eras — that plot almost ceases to be relevant.

While I enjoyed nearly every minute of “Age of Ultron,” I felt at times as if my grasp on the whole thing was slipping. Who could say exactly what was happening at any given moment?

I don’t think it’s just me and my sometimes foggy, sleep-deprived brain, either. My theory is that, at this point, only the Marvel script supervisors know precisely what is going on.

Still, there’s a familiarity that anchors us.

Elements of “Beauty and the Beast” can be found in the movie’s unlikely central romance, even if the coupling comes out of left field.

There are shades of the “Frankenstein” myth in Ultron, who proves to be one of Marvel’s more fascinating baddies, thanks to James Spader’s acerbic vocalization.

As lofty, and perhaps unachievable, as its ambitions are, it isn’t the money-shot action sequences that ground “Age of Ultron.”

The film is at its headiest and most thrilling when it puts the mayhem on pause for the sake of intimate interactions between its god-like heroes — trading war stories at a party, licking their wounds after retreating to a remote farmhouse.

The Avengers are most endearing when they are most human.

 

 

 

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Is Warner Bros. Taking the Woman Out of ‘Wonder Woman’?

The Hollywood Reporter broke the news yesterday that Michelle MacLaren, director of Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman” movie, has exited the project.

According to a statement, MacLaren quit because of the mysterious “creative differences” so often cited as an explanation for director-studio splits.

BB-S5-Michelle-MacLaren-590 (1)Now, I know it’s probably too early to step up on my feminist soapbox. After all, we don’t really know what happened here. “Creative differences” could mean any number of things, from “she didn’t get along with the producers,” to “she was difficult to work with,” to “we just didn’t like her.”

There are rumors the studio was uncomfortable with MacLaren’s vision for the Amazon princess’ first solo film, which included a 1920s setting and maybe a tiger sidekick. Perhaps the director’s television background didn’t prepare her to oversee a potential blockbuster, though her credits include such formidable series as “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad.”

Whatever the reason, which we’ll probably never fully know, MacLaren’s exit raises all sorts of red flags. I can’t help but wonder if the Hollywood boys club, not to mention the boys club of comic books, has chewed up and spit out yet another victim.

MacLaren would have been one of the first women to direct a major comic book movie, no small achievement. USA Today notes that Lexi Alexander helmed 2008’s “Punisher: War Zone,” but “Wonder Woman” is a movie of greater scale and bigger box office potential.

Just as there are few women in creative positions in the comic book world, there aren’t many to be found in the world of comic book movies either. There are woman producers, but they are seriously outnumbered by their male colleagues. Offhand, I can think of only one woman writer of comic book movies — the capable, crimson-haired Jane Goldman, co-writer of “Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”

Marvel came close to breaking new ground when “Monster” director Patty Jenkins was set to oversee the sequel to “Thor.” Jenkins bowed out due to — guess what? — creative differences, making way for Alan Taylor to inherit the mess that was “Thor: The Dark World.”

Of course, Hollyywood is notoriously male-centric when it comes to virtually every film ever made, not just comic book movies. There are only a handful of female directors who are household names, including Angelina Jolie, Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola.

Bigelow made history in 2010 when she became the first woman to win a directing Oscar. It took that long for a female filmmaker to claim the honor. Just this year, the Academy infamously snubbed “Selma” director Ava DuVernay in favor of a couple of male directors whose work was arguably less compelling.

I’m not going to argue that it is Warner Bros.’ sole responsibility to change the status quo. The studio isn’t obligated to appoint a woman as the cinematic guardian of “Wonder Woman.” It would be a nice gesture, though.

It’s difficult to ignore the fact that Diana’s debut in “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” — due in theaters next year — was entrusted to Zack Snyder, a guy whose idea of girl power is embodied in the objectified, video-game-shallow heroines of “Sucker Punch.”

Even so, I’m sure there are plenty of men who could sensitively and effectively tell the warrior princess’ story. One of them is Joss Whedon, whose name has been floated as the perfect replacement for MacLaren.

Whedon, who was involved in an earlier, doomed Wonder Woman project, recently announced his intention to take a break from Marvel. He presumably needs a rest after wrestling the impending “Avengers: Age of Ultron” into shape. The timing of this news sent the rumor mills swirling with the theory that perhaps a move to DC is in the director’s future. Such a crossover seems unlikely but stranger things have happened.

Whedon is celebrated for writing nuanced, powerful, three-dimensional female characters, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to “Much Ado About Nothing’s” Beatrice. I’m sure he’d do a wonderful job with “Wonder Woman,” but I’d be disappointed if he was named director.

Entrusting MacLaren with the keys to Diana’s kingdom was a step toward inviting women to contribute significantly to a genre woefully short on meaningful, memorable heroines. The director’s experience on series packed with strong female characters boded well for the film.

There’s always a chance Warner Bros. could bring another woman onto the project — although, by my observation, women who walk off a film are inevitably replaced by someone from Hollywood’s massive pool of male directors.

(I can’t help but think of Brenda Chapman, the ousted director of Disney’s “Brave,” or Catherine Hardwicke, who was replaced by Chris Weitz for the second “Twilight” movie.)

Once again, the studio is under no obligation to hire a woman to helm “Wonder Woman,” but somehow, it feels right.

At top, “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot, photo: mic.com. Above, director Michelle MacLaren, photo: blogs.amctv.com.

 

 

 

 

Sweet Zombies, Silly Slashers Make for Un-Scary Halloween

Every film critic has at least one dirty, little secret, one genre they pretend to love but secretly loathe.

For me, that genre is horror.

Since I was a little girl, sleeping with the nightlight on, I’ve cowered in fear of spooky thrillers and big-screen chillers. I’m fine during the day, but after dark, my imagination transforms scary movies into reality, casting giant, terrifying shadows across my mind.

As I grew up, I learned to avoid horror movies, shunning everything from “Nightmare on Elm Street” to “The Grudge.” This strategy worked pretty well until I landed a job as movie critic for the local newspaper. Suddenly, I was expected to see whatever films readers wanted to know about, even the scary ones.

I sat through my share of flicks that kept me up at night, but more often than not, I would do my best to invent excuses so I could weasel out of flicks like “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity.” I freely confess that when it came to horror movies, I was a big slacker.

This Halloween, in honor of my fellow cowards, I offer eight films that are more fun than frightening. A few of them have their share of guts and gore, but they all emphasize hilarity over the sort of terror that will leave you traumatized for weeks.

Go ahead and watch these with the lights out, and sleep tight afterward.

“Arsenic and Old Lace,” 1944: Featuring the incomparable Cary Grant at his harried, madcap best, “Arsenic” is hilarious and demented, an unexpected treat, considering it’s the work of wholesome “It’s a Wonderful Life” director Frank Capra.

Grant gives his superb physical comedy skills and elastic facial expressions a thorough workout, playing Mortimer Brewster, a theater critic whose wedding day is thrown into chaos when he discovers that murder is a family tradition. It seems Mortimer’s maiden aunts (Jean Adair, Josephine Hull) are offering more than simple charity to lonely old bachelors. Other mad relatives pop up as well, prompting Mortimer to exclaim, “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops!”

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“Young Frankenstein,” 1974: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is one literature’s great titles, but one could argue it has yet to inspire a truly great film adaptation. “Young Frankenstein” is my favorite by far, so much more fun than stuffier attempts by directors with mustier credits than king of cinema spoofery Mel Brooks.

This spot-on black-and-white parody of Universal’s 1931 “Frankenstein” and 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein” boasts a remarkable cast, including Gene Wilder as the neurotic Dr. Frahnkenshteen and Peter Boyle as his tap-dancing monster.

“The Evil Dead,” 1981: Sam Raimi’s low-budget, DIY horror comedy is a classic, influencing every campy genre spoof that followed it with its inventive special effects and weird and gory humor. Bruce Campbell gives an epic, deadpan performance as Ash, one of five doomed souls at the proverbial cabin in the woods when a bloodthirsty demon is inadvertently unleashed.

Raimi’s original is legend, but Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake isn’t half bad. I’m partial to Raimi’s even cheesier sequel, 1992’s “Army of Darkness,” which pits Ash and his chainsaw arm against legions of reanimated, stop-motion skeletons.

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“Ghost Busters,” 1984: You might say the 1980s was the Golden Age of horror comedy. “Ghost Busters” is the cream of the crop of campy classics, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with lots of screenings and news of a planned reboot.

None of the wussy ghost hunters currently occupying cable television can compare to parapsychology professionals Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis, who set out to rid New York City of its pesky ghouls and goblins.

Other silly-spooky ’80s gems include “An American Werewolf in London,” “Beetlejuice,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Gremlins” and “Fright Night.”

“Shaun of the Dead,” 2004: If George Romero was British and liked to hang out at the pub, he would have created this zombie comedy instead of “Night of the Living Dead.” Comedian Simon Pegg is in fine form as the eponymous Shaun, a suburban slacker whose life spent goofing off with slovenly best mate Ed (Nick Frost) is upended when the flesh-eating dead come shuffling into his neighborhood.

Desperate to win back his fed-up ex (Kate Ashfield), Shaun is forced to play the hero. His weapons of choice? A cricket bat. His plan of action? Hole up at the local drinking establishment and wait for the apocalypse to blow over. As you probably guessed, that doesn’t go so well.

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“Zombieland,” 2009: If “The Walking Dead” was goofy and offered a good time instead of soul-crushing despair, it would be “Zombieland.” Like the comic book turned hit AMC series, this comedy is about a disparate band of survivors who latch onto each other and form an oddball family.

They include Jesse Eisenberg’s timid student, who stays alive, post-apocalypse, by sticking to a set of practical rules, and Woody Harrelson’s cowboy, who dreams of Twinkies. They’re joined by a pair of con artists, played by a smokey-eyed, smokey-voiced Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as her little sister. The movie also happens to feature one of the best cameos in cinema history.

“The Cabin in the Woods,” 2012: Deceptively advertised as a straight-up horror flick in an attempt to avoid spoilers, this insanely clever twist on the genre went largely unseen when it debuted in 2012. Penned by master of meta Joss Whedon and “Lost” writer Drew Goddard, “Cabin” deserves a wider audience.

It starts out as a stereotypical slasher flick, with Chris Hemsworth as a college jock heading out to a raucous weekend in the middle of nowhere with a gang of equally hackneyed characters, including a brainy virgin (Kristin Connelly) and a pot-smoking nerd (Fran Kranz). Trust me, though. By the end, “Cabin” has becomes the perfect parody, turning the horror movie inside out and exposing its quivering guts.

“Warm Bodies,” 2013: Think all zombies are repulsive, rotting creatures with chunks of flesh falling off their bones? Think again. Nicholas Hoult stars as the most adorable, blue-eyed member of the walking dead you’ve ever seen. And he’s in love with a girl. A human girl (Teresa Palmer), who thinks he’s creepy and doesn’t know he ate her boyfriend’s brains. Awkward.

Probably the sweetest movie ever set in the zombie apocalypse, “Warm Bodies” falls into that strange and wonderful horror subgenre, the zom-rom-com. It’s funny. It’s playful. It’s the undead teenage love story “Twilight” should have been.

What movies do you plan to watch on Halloween?

 Photos: http://www.watchandreview.com and ghostbusters.com.

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Happy Birthday, Joss: An Appreciation of the Man Who Made ‘Buffy’

Happy birthday, Joss Whedon.

On Monday, the “Avengers” director turned 50, which got me thinking about the fact that it only took a little under a half-century for Hollywood to give the man the respect he deserves.

Whedon is currently filming “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Due in theaters next year, this hotly anticipated sequel could very well surpass the success of its predecessor, the third highest grossing movie of all time.

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What Whedon accomplished with “The Avengers” was nearly impossible. A movie starring no less than nine major stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, and featuring at least four of the most popular superheroes in comic book history could have easily been a disaster. Instead, Whedon effortlessly juggled an unwieldy cast, some weird shifts in tone, a massive visual effects budget and a monster-sized plot, resulting in one of the most entertaining adaptations yet. If you doubt the difficulty of this, you only have to look at the potential fiasco that is the upcoming Justice League film, aka “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

But to understand the essence of Joss, the reason he is revered by thousands upon thousands of adoring fans, you’ll need to sample one of his lesser known works, like his contemporary, black and white, low budget interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or the too quickly cancelled series “Firefly” or “Dollhouse.” If you’re strapped for time, there’s always “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” the brilliant musical short Whedon and friends threw together when a writers strike sidelined them from their usual employment.

To truly appreciate Whedon, however, you must revisit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the show that spawned my undying affection for the writer, director, producer extraordinaire and taught me, for the very first time, what it is to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with a television series.

My initial experience of Joss Whedon came courtesy of the 1992 feature film “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I was 16, it was summer and my friends and I went to see the horror comedy at the local discount theater. We quickly became obsessed, despite the fact that the movie is corny and ridiculous.

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Long before Sarah Michelle Gellar donned Buffy’s iconic mini skirts, Kristy Swanson starred as a stereotypical, blonde high school Valley girl whose social life is ruined when she discovers she is the chosen one, fated to save the world from a vampire menace.

Buffy’s vamp-slaying trainer, Merrick, is improbably played by Donald Sutherland. He helps her unleash her innate powers, including menstrual cramps that serve as vamp-detecting radar. Seriously.

One of the vamp villains is played by Pee Wee himself, Paul Reubens. The other is played by Rutger Hauer, who chews the scenery as if he was appearing on London’s West End. An adorable Luke Perry pops up in a trench coat and combat boots as Buffy’s slacker ally, Pike. (An early version of Spike, perhaps?) The soundtrack is actually … kinda … cool.

Even now, if you look on the Internet Movie Database, Whedon is credited as the screenwriter of this silly early incarnation of “Buffy.” But Whedon apparently had little involvement with the final version of the film. The studio didn’t “get” his original script -– this was to become a running theme throughout his career — and tinkered with it until it was beyond recognition.

Despite the studio tampering, there’s something that remains of Whedon in the 1992 “Buffy,” an appealing irreverence and weirdness, a surprising sweetness even, and I think it was this that my 16-year-old self subconsciously responded to.

Five years later, Whedon was given the do-over he’d been hoping for, bringing his intact version of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the now defunct WB network. At the time, I thought this was a strange concept for a series, as did many people. I remember watching the first few episodes, which featured Gellar battling actors in cheesy prosthetics, a cheerleading mom who turns out to be a witch and Nicholas Brendon’s lovable nerd, Xander, falling for a sexy teacher who is actually a man-eating praying mantis. It was like “The Twilight Zone” meets “The X-Files Junior.” I wasn’t that impressed.

But then the show started getting interesting and it became clear that it was about more than superficial teen angst tinged with the supernatural. Midway through Season 2, Buffy succumbed to her crush on brooding vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) with deadly consequences and it was apparent that Whedon was slowly transforming the series into something epic. “Buffy” had suddenly become a profound exploration of the dark desires and inescapable agonies of youth.

Mind you, this was before “Lost” and the myriad shows currently on air that start out with a deceptively simple premise and gradually reveal an over-arching mythology that is complex and compelling.

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Whedon was never content to merely deliver a bit of decent entertainment. He was constantly pushing the envelope and experimenting, testing the boundaries of traditional television. If there’s a flaw to one of the producer’s recent projects, ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” it’s that the series doesn’t take enough risks. There’s not enough Joss in it.

To appreciate just how experimental Whedon is, you must check out, not “Buffy,” but its spin-off, “Angel,” which went to bizarre and awesome extremes in its manipulation of traditional story conventions. The show doesn’t always work but it’s quite a marvel.

Along with Kevin Williamson and J.J. Abrams, Whedon can be credited with the entertainment industry’s obsession with the “meta.” “Buffy,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity” were among the first shows to exhibit a self-referential wit that is common today in everything from cartoons to comic book movies. They toyed with language in delightful ways. Their characters indulged in contemporary wordplay clever enough to rival Shakespeare. Their dialogue was intricately layered with pop culture references and snarky social commentary, and Whedon was undoubtedly the master.

More than this, Whedon has always displayed an uncanny grasp of character, which is why the high school clichés of “Buffy” evolved into improbably rich and unpredictable personalities. Boreanaz’ mumbling hunk of a bloodsucker became a sadistic demon. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow, a shrinking violet of a brain, became volatile and powerful. Even a character as two-dimensional as Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia Chase blossomed into someone worth rooting for. Diving deep into the murky and empathetic depths of character is a mark of every Whedon show.

The director also knows how to elicit the best performances out of every actor, down to the smallest supporting player. He tends to work with the same people again and again and he alone seems to hold the power to unearth the glittering gems of hidden talent in certain performers, like Gellar and woefully underrated actors Fran Kranz, Eliza Dushku, Alexis Denisof, Summer Glau, Amy Acker and James Marsters.

There’s a reason Whedon’s creations have consistently inspired the adoration of fans. While he respects his audience, he never condescends to them and never compromises his unique vision simply to curry favor with them. He’s celebrated for making decisions that irk fans, like killing off major characters with no warning –- poor Jenny Calendar — or abruptly turning them evil or suddenly introducing a sister –- remember Dawn? –- or a child who didn’t exist before.

With “Buffy,” Whedon constantly challenged television censors by pushing the limits of sex and violence, and he did it so boldly and assuredly that The WB hardly seemed to notice. But it wasn’t just about sensationalism, there was some serious intent and artistry going on as well. “Buffy” was one of the first shows to depict a lesbian relationship, albeit it wrapped up in Wiccan metaphors. The nearly silent episode “Hush” is a creepy and masterful work of horror. The musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” is still one of the greatest musical episodes ever. When Buffy’s mom kicks the bucket in Season 5, the shock of it quickly gives way to a heart-rending rumination on loss.

Even when, in a pretty cliché move and not for the first time either, Whedon killed off his heroine and resurrected her, the resulting story was more intriguing than you’d imagine as Buffy grapples with the harsh realities of living after tasting the peace and pleasures of the afterlife.

Whedon may have dramatically changed the TV landscape, but on a more personal level, he gave this viewer six years of obsessive fun, fulfilling discussion, engaging analysis and bonding over “Buffy.” As a college student, I gathered weekly with roommates and friends to watch each new episode. After I graduated, the tradition continued with friends back home.

In recent years, I’ve watched younger friends embrace the series with the same curiosity and passion. I’m glad they’re discovering the classic that is “Buffy” and the genius of Whedon. There’s so much more to him than “The Avengers.”

Below, I’ve put together a little photographic reminiscence of my “Buffy” years. Hope you enjoy my trip down memory lane. 

Friend and fellow “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan Karyn Singer puts a stake in the 1992 movie.

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From left, Lavender Vroman, Sonia Martinez (now Whitehead), Nick Vroman, Karyn Singer and Nathan Whitehead wait outside Metro Comics in Santa Barbara to meet some of the cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Lavender Vroman with Juliet Landau and James Marsters, aka Drusilla and Spike.  

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From left, “Buffy” enthusiasts Michelle Cowan Pollock, Catherine Newell, Suzanne Stroosma and Fawn Kemble wait for a signing outside Metro Comics in Santa Barbara. 

Lavender Vroman with James Marsters at Metro Comics.

 Lavender Vroman with Anthony Stewart Head and Alyson Hannigan.

555676_10201175138445539_836365514_nKristy Rivas, left, and Lavender Vroman awaiting an appearance by Joss Whedon at WonderCon Anaheim in 2013. 

Photos in story courtesy http://www.comicsonline.com, buffy.wikia.com.