MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-UltronAvengers: Age of Ultron opened across India today, April 24, 2015. This film is set sometime after the events of the second films in the Captain America and Thor solo “trilogies.” We know this because Thor is on Earth and the Falcon (in a cameo) makes an offhand comment indicating that he’s spending time looking for Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier. Furthermore, we know it because the opening scene is the Avengers working as a team to take down Baron Von Strucker’s fortress (re: Captain America 2 end-credit scene) in a fight to obtain Loki’s scepter. This scene suggests that the team has been working together for a while in taking down Hydra bases of operation globally. (Many have jokingly inquired why Steve Rogers (Cap) wouldn’t have called in his avenging friends during the events of the Winter Soldier film.  This film reinforces, rather than solves, that riddle.) At any rate, that opening scene contains an awesome action sequence.

The core premise of the film will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers for this film–not to mention the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films and post-credit scenes. Tony Stark (Iron Man) tries to “create a suit of armor around the world” and the program–dubbed Project “Ultron”–goes terribly awry.  After Ultron comes into existence, he quickly moves to co-opt the Maximoff twins (better known as The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.) Because the twins have an axe to grind with Tony Stark, they willingly side with Ultron. The Scarlet Witch is instrumental in Ultron’s plan. If you haven’t seen the trailers don’t finish this sentence, but for others it will be apparent that the Scarlet Witch’s mind control is used to pit some Avengers against either themselves or others.

The tone of this film is different from the first Avengers movie. In the first film much of the tension springs from unfavorable first impressions and standoffishness. Now the characters know each other and love-hate relationships are rife–some more loving and some more loathing than others. This may make it easier to relate to what’s going on between the major characters. The strained relationships inside the team remain an important factor, and are crucial to the films going forward–most notably Captain America 3: Civil War.)

While the trailers may have led one to believe this would be a big film for Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) given the flashback scenes, it’s actually Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) who has a more pivotal and revealing role in this film. (Perhaps to the chagrin of the many who wonder why he’s even on the team.) However, the evolving relationship between Romanov and Bruce Banner gets a fair amount of screen time–though the need to pack a lot into the film given the huge cast makes this drama feel a bit thin. The twins and their tormented past are also critical to the tone of the film. They hold an event from the past against Stark, but they are ethical people at their core.

The Vision is the character that has been held closest to the vest by Marvel. I won’t say much about Vision to avoid spoiling anything other than that it’s an intriguing character. I was worried that either the way this character was created or the effect he had on the story would be a disappointment, but it wasn’t.

I think James Spader did an excellent job of playing Ultron–a character that vacillates between being childlike and being a grim psychopath. (One may not get the childlike part from the trailers, but this is a brand new intelligent entity, and so it’s clever to show that.)

Like the first Avengers movie, this one has its bit of deus ex machina (bolt from the blue solutions to once insolvable problems), but it’s not the perfection of story that makes these movies engrossing. (I didn’t find it as deus ex machina as the first film–though there is at least one moment that springs to mind.)

What sells these films is: a.) the witty dialogue;  b.) the stunning visuals of the action sequences; and c.) the tension between characters both friend and foe. (Probably not in the aforementioned order.) On those three items this film doesn’t disappoint.

I won’t even bother to recommend you see it, as I’m sure–like everybody else on the planet–you will.

BOOK REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this novel about the doomed love affair of two cancer-riddled teens says a great deal, and—while lifted from Shakespeare–it’s well-chosen. The lead character is a sixteen-year-old girl named Hazel who has lungs that, as she puts it, “suck at being lungs.” She meets a boy, Augustus, at support group who is in remission, but who had a leg amputated in the process of achieving his momentary cancer-free status. Hazel takes an immediate liking to the handsome and charismatic Augustus (i.e. “Gus”), but remains standoffish because she is–to use her own words–“a grenade.” Meaning that she is going to die young, leaving her loved ones devastated. She has enough guilt about the fact that she will do this to her parents, but is unwilling to subject Gus to the same fate. Augustus, however, is an ardent and skillful wooer and eventually wears Hazel down with his winning ways and selfless acts.

This isn’t a typical read for me by a long shot. It’s written in the language of YA fiction, and it’s brutally depressing in places. Neither of the aforementioned characteristics usually draw me in. However, despite its sad subject matter, the book has a sense of humor that is essential to keep the story from crushing one’s will to continue reading. Of course, the fact that all the major young characters are dying is a cloud ever-present throughout the book. I will say it’s the most viscerally emotional novel I’ve read in some time. The only books this depressing that I’ve read recently were nonfiction works on Pol Pot era Cambodia and the Holocaust.

The strength of the book is its characters. They may be atypically intelligent, clever, and well-spoken teens, but they are intriguing, likable, and well-developed characters. Besides Hazel and Gus, there is a secondary character named Isaac who has a form of cancer that isn’t highly lethal but which does claim his eyes. Hazel and Gus are in one way polar opposites. Gus, the former star athlete, is ever concerned about his legacy, but the less ambitious Hazel believes that everyone fades into oblivion rapidly. These divergent perspectives of similarly doomed youths give one insight into the varied approaches to experiencing one’s mortality.

Another intriguing character is Peter Van Houten, a one-time American writer living in Amsterdam and the heir to a fortune off which he lives as a professional drunk. Van Houten wrote a single book about a person who dies young, which turns out to be based on his own child and is Hazel’s favorite book. Gus reads the book to please Hazel, but becomes genuinely intrigued with its ambiguous ending. Van Houten is an unpleasant character, but his book is a focal point of the storyline. The couple takes a trip to Amsterdam to try to get answers about the novel’s abrupt ending, and this experience proves to be the pivotal point in their relationship. Van Houten–jackass as he may be–does end up passing on some useful wisdom to Hazel and Gus.

I rate this book highly for being readable, captivating, and gripping. I would recommend it for those who don’t usually read YA, though the language and focus is decidedly geared toward a YA audience.

It should be noted that the film adaptation will come out this summer. For some reason they filmed it in Pittsburgh instead of the story’s real setting—and my one-time home—Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ll try not to hold this against it, too much.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Ender’s Game is the story of a boy, Ender Wiggin, whose intelligence and capacity for ruthlessness lead the military establishment to believe that he’s the last hope for mankind. The book is set in a future after the Earth has been invaded twice by an alien species called the buggers, and now the Earth is planning its own “preemptive” invasion to end the bugger threat once and for all.

The novel follows Ender’s life from his short home life as a “third”—a rare third child for which special permission must be granted—through his post-war life. (This entire timeline transpires before adulthood.) The bulk of the novel takes place in Battle School, where Ender receives his training in military tactics and strategy and spends much of his time in zero gravity war games. He rises up through the ranks quickly, as expected, but not without stirring some animus in the process. He learns strategy both through war games and through the mind-field of real world animosity by others who are jealous or feel insulted by his brilliance.

As Commander material, Ender is considered to be in the Goldilocks zone. His older brother, Peter, is too cruel; his sister, Valentine, is just too kind. (All three Wiggin children are geniuses.) Ender has the right mix to fight the buggers. His problem is that the world forces him to be ruthless and his compassionate side makes it hard to cope.
While Ender leaves home young and early in the novel, there is a subplot involving the older Wiggin children that is revealed over the course of the book—showing the reader more of the tormenting brother and the loving sister who shaped his worldview. Ender does interact with Valentine in person on a couple of occasions, but his only interaction with Peter is a brief mention of correspondence at the end of the book.

Ender is an intriguing character. He is always the outsider, by birth as a third and then through isolation in Battle School that is facilitated by the conflicted head of the Battle School, Col. Graff.

I won’t get into the ending except to say that there is a twist at the novel’s climax. I will say that the reveal of this twist felt a little anti-climactic to me. However, as the real story isn’t about fighting the buggers, but Ender’s internal struggle, this isn’t as dismaying as it might otherwise be.

One can tell that this is a series book because it climaxes and resolves relatively early, leaving a fair amount of space to set up the next book. This actually helps the twist offer some surprise because the reader sees that there are so many pages left for the novel to resolve itself.

Card does an interesting thing in making the central character stronger than everyone around him–at least until he’s introduced to his new guru, Mazer Rackham–the Commander who won the key battle of the second bugger invasion and who is alive by virtue of a relativistic trip. Ender’s superiority seems like a recipe for boredom, but it works because what we don’t know is whether Ender is stronger than everyone else pitted against him combined, and, moreover, we don’t know whether he is strong enough inside to withstand all the horridness to which he is subjected. A lot of the tension of the novel is really internal to Ender. Unlike Peter, who would revel in ruthlessness, Ender is tormented by all of the violence he must perpetrate.

I’d recommend this novel. It has its flaws, but it is quite readable and Ender’s character is intriguing from start to finish.

The movie version is coming out tomorrow. I haven’t seen it, but here is the trailer.

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5 Classics of Martial Arts Cinema

Martial arts cinema ranges from the horrible through the campy to the excellent. There is one ever-present risk facing this genre. That is, like porn, movie makers may conclude that viewers aren’t watching for character or plot so they might as well just focus on the action. When they do that and then they blow the action– well, that’s when it’s painful to watch. By numbers, most of this genre probably falls into that category. However, sometimes they get it right.

Of course, it’s not always clear what should be categorized as a martial arts film, given many cross-genre romps. The Matrix is science fiction, but it’s also a kung fu flick. The Bourne trilogy films are spy thrillers, but their characteristic gritty hand-to-hand combat sequences are integral to the films. I’ve tried to focus on films that one would unambiguously categorize as martial arts cinema (though anything by Kurosawa is likely to be considered mainstream cinema.)

I also, admittedly, display several of my own biases. I prefer films that avoid over-the-top superhuman choreography. I don’t want to say that I prefer realism. None of it is realistic, but there’s a vast difference between Jackie Chan’s choreography and that of The Curse of the Golden Flower. Still, I do include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle, which both rely heavily on wires and superhuman feats. I also like period pieces as opposed to modern-day films. Of course, characters with charisma also get my attention, but I don’t think I’m unique in that regard.

5.) Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s last film, and features Lee as a Shaolin practitioner cum secret agent. The film reminds me of the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice in that it’s about a person being tasked to infiltrate an evil mastermind’s sprawling lair not because it makes logical or reality-based sense, but rather because the proposed infiltrator is just that damn good.

4.) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

This is undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed of the films on the list. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2000, and while it did not win in that category, it did take four Oscars that year. It’s in a class of film that includes Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero that are known for stunning cinematography and historical settings. (Unfortunately, these films are also marked by an insanely excessive use of wire-work for my taste.) This film includes a romantic component as well as the fight to possess a sword called Green Destiny. As is mandatory for Kung fu films, there’s a martial arts master whose death must be avenged.

3.) The Legend of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II)

Jackie Chan plays a bumbling young man who is, ironically, a master of Kung fu when completely inebriated. The plot revolves around a mix up between an agent who is trying to steal a valuable artifact and Chan’s character who is trying to smuggle ginseng to avoid paying duty on it. Incredibly, the artifact and ginseng are packaged identically, and the thief ends up with the ginseng and Chan’s character with the artifact. It’s Chan at his best, with all the comedy and creative choreography that one would expect.

2.) Hidden Fortress

I’m not including this just to prevent a Chinese sweep. (On that note: I’ve heard the Thai Ong Bak films are quite good, but I haven’t gotten around do seeing any of them.) Anyway, there are some excellent Japanese period films that involve many combat sequences that are not over-the-top. Of course, Akira Kurosawa dominates in this realm. There are other Kurosawa films, such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or Ran that could equally well be included. Hidden Fortress is probably best known to American movie buffs as a major influence on George Lucas in the making of the first Star Wars film. Hidden Fortress is a about a General (played by portrayer-of-samurai-extraordinaire Toshiro Mifune) who must escort a princess and her family fortune cross-country to safety. Of course, as in every hero’s journey, there are many challenges to be confronted.

1.) Kung Fu Hustle

This comedy is set in the gang-ridden slums of 1930’s Shanghai. A tenement complex is assailed by the gangs. However, the residents offer some surprising resistance in the form of unexpected apartment-dwelling kung fu masters. Unlike Jackie Chan’s down-to-earth comedies, this one is almost cartoon-esque. It features a cast of anti-heroes that keeps the film interesting, and the protagonist has a strong narrative arc.

Book Review: JOHN DIES AT THE END by David Wong

John Dies at the End (John Dies at the End, #1)John Dies at the End by David Wong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the movie Alien was “Jaws in space,” then John Dies at the End is “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the Nether World.” Except that, unlike Bill and Ted’s, Wong’s book is hilarious.

The gist of this book is that two likable anti-heroes ingest a drug, “soy sauce,” that gives them the ability to pass into an alternate universe. They’re inexorably drawn down the rabbit hole (so to speak, there is no actual rabbit hole in this book.) What they find is not what they expected. It’s not what anyone expected, because it’s so mind-boggling ridiculous and richly complex.

The title character, John, oddly enough is not the main character. The author, David Wong, uses a self-named protagonist as narrator and lead. The book unfolds as Wong (the character, not the author) tells a skeptical journalist about the strange goings-on in his small, Midwestern hometown.

We see John mostly through the lens of the narrating Wong. We know that John is a storyteller. Which may sound a lot like “liar,” but that’s not the case. Have you ever known a person who would never deceive you for personal gain, but will never fail to engage in hyperbole to make a story funnier or more interesting? That is John. He has one of my favorite lines of the book:

“We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?”

Despite the fact that John is a booze-hound and exaggerator, he remains an endearing character. As Wong gets to know Amy, a classmate who lost her hand after they knew each other in school, we get an insightful testimonial about John:

“Let me tell you something about John. The reason I was surprised by your hand was because John never once described you as, ‘the girl with the missing hand.’”

As for Wong’s character, he is hapless but hilarious. When he gets to know Amy, he is shocked to find that she’s not retarded or crazy. They had vaguely known each other from a “Special Needs” school, but it never occurs to him that she might be at least as sane as he.

The book is a pan-genre mélange. While it’s mostly a combination of horror and humor, there are points at which it feels like action/adventure and towards the end it seems largely like sci-fi. Horror and humor are not easily mixed, but this book does it about as well as one can imagine it being done. John Dies at the End is campy, of that there can be no doubt, but Wong writes descriptions of creatures and murderous events in a way that offers grim clarity. As a lover of humor more than horror, I was obviously not put off by this dark comedy.

Throughout the book, one suspects that the whole surreal bag of events is just a bad hallucinogenic trip, and that the “soy sauce” is just LSD on steroids. Happily this is not the case… or is it?

Don’t worry; John dying is not the intriguing twist at the end of this book. There are a couple such twists though.

If the movie that comes out today (January 25, 2013) is not awesome, it’s not Wong’s fault. The trailer shows us the quirky horror, but not the humor of the book. Much of the humor is in the language – i.e. the word choice. Some of that will likely come out in dialogue and narration, but who knows how much.
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Will “Man of Steel” Turn the Tide on Superman Movies?

I hold contrary views to the character Bill, played by the late David Carradine, in the Kill Bill movies. Bill said that Superman was his absolute favorite superhero. The Man of Steel is among my least favorite superheroes. From a writer’s point of view, it’s hard to write an edge-of-the-seat Superman tale because readers have to feel the protagonist is in peril at every turn. That’s a tough sell if your hero is all-powerful and invulnerable. Superman writers learned this quickly, and they responded by creating a rock that could weaken or kill their character by its mere presence. In books and movies, the bad guy should be stronger and smarter than the hero. Lex Luthor is a devious fiend, but he’s no match for Superman in any domain but wickedness.

There’s a lot of talk about this year’s Superman movie, entitled Man of Steel, being darker and grittier with the implication that it’ll be more interesting than past Superman movies. The involvement of Christopher Nolan, who is most famous for the outstanding Dark Knight movie trilogy, makes many optimistic. It may be that they can tap into some of the Dark Knight narrative power. However, it’s easier to have gripping Batman tale. Batman is only human, with no superpowers, and he is inherently a loner (or in some cases a dynamic duo.) Batman may be smart, but he’s not the smartest. He may be strong, but he’s not the strongest. This makes it relatively easy to write him into perilous situations in which he is outmatched.

I have high hopes for Man of Steel, but I’m skeptical.