Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

May 21, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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In the superhero era, sci-fi movies these days are bigger, louder and more special-effected (is that a word?), and so I was really looking forward to Ex Machina, the low-budget (US$15 million) directorial debut of career screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for penning the scripts to sci-fi semi-classics like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (and he wrote the novel The Beach, which was made into that movie with Leo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen).

The film received an avalanche of hype as early as last year, and I’m glad to say it does not disappoint. As a pure sci-fi story that goes back to the roots of the genre, Ex Machina delivers. Despite very little action and a deliberately mellow pace, the film is gripping, thought-provoking, tense and claustrophobic all the way through.

Without giving too much away, the film begins with a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) from the world’s largest search engine company, Bluebook (basically Google), winning a contest to meet the company’s enigmatic billionaire CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who lives in a secluded research facility that requires a helicopter to access. Nathan invites Caleb to participate in an experiment involving his latest creation, a beautiful humanoid android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s task, through conversations and observation, to judge whether Ava has consciousness, or whether she’s just simulating consciousness. And so begins an intriguing series of “sessions” between Caleb and Ava as Nathan looks on through surveillance video.

As you would expect, things are not as simple as they appear, and soon Caleb finds himself with a lot of unanswered questions. There are mini twists and turns galore, with Caleb growing more paranoid about both Ava and Nathan, and eventually, himself. Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? Who’s playing whom? It’s one of those films where you never stop questioning the characters’ motives and what they are trying to achieve, and it’s this mystery that provides the strong pulse to the heart of the tale. It helps that it’s not a hackneyed plot that relies on one massive twist to shock audiences — this is a fascinating sci-fi story from start to finish.

In typical classic sci-fi fashion, there is a surrealistic feel to the experience that is almost dreamlike. The high-tech facility where the bulk of the film is set is grey and sombre, and the windowless walls seem as though they are closing in on Caleb as his paranoia and claustrophobia grows. The facility is juxtaposed nicely with the outdoor scenery the characters occasionally escape to, providing a technology vs nature dichotomy that plays into the film’s layered themes.

The film would not be what it is without the spectacular performance of Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress whom I had only seen once prior, in the disappointing Seventh SonVikander is a perfect blend of beauty, sexuality and grace, and her dancing background really helped provide the right mix of human and robot to Ava. You believe what she is — a highly intelligent robot who could easily be mistaken for an attractive human but for the see-through limbs and mid-section. Everything about her performance, from the way she moved to the facial expressions and even the way she spoke contributed to making Ava so authentic that she bordered on creepy. Most importantly, she makes you believe in Caleb’s reactions to her. Vikander’s going to be a star, no doubt about it.

Oscar Issac also impresses as Nathan, a genius with demons to exorcise. After seeing him shine in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year, I knew this was going to be the case. Isaac is a chameleon capable of playing anyone, and the intensity he brings to Nathan elevates the character into more than it should have been. Can’t wait to see him in the new Star Wars film at the end of the year.

By contrast, Gleeson is the weakest link. He’s pretty good as Caleb — just not as eye-catching as the other two — though I suspect the burden of suppressing his Irish accent in favour of an American one affected his performance to some degree. Interestingly, the first time I saw Gleeson was in an episode of Black Mirror, the brilliant Charlie Brooker sci-fi series, where he played a life-like android himself. That was a phenomenal story with parallels to this one, and I’d recommend fans of the movie to check out the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror if they haven’t already.

Ex Machina does have a few holes in it as the story veers towards its tense conclusion, a problem common to even the best sci-fi films, though on the whole it’s hard to ask for much more from Garland in his directorial debut. It’s also a fine film from an aesthetics perspective; the special effects are used sparingly but effectively — mostly on Ava’s semi-transparent body — and the cinematography does a solid job of balancing the emotional and visual aspects. This is a fable that will make you think about the inevitable fallibility of human nature and the future of technology, especially in an age when artificial intelligence is making it difficult to distinguish sci-fi from reality. Even Stephen Hawking said recently that he believes “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Now think about that.

4.5 stars out of 5

‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part I

May 9, 2015 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Nearly two years ago, American studio Naughty Dog released The Last of Us on PS3. The game went on to win more than 240 game of the year awards around the world, a number only slightly less unfathomable than the fact that there actually are so many game of the year awards to hand out. I wanted to get the game immediately, but with an 18-month-old baby, another one due shortly and this other commitment called life, I was forced to put my dream of playing the game on the backburner.

Last month, I went to Tokyo and visited a Yodobashi Camera, just possibly the best electronic stores ever created. It was in the store’s video game section that my eyes feasted on a familiar image that brought the memories flooding back. Not only that, the game had become part of the PS3 classic collection, meaning it was ON SPECIAL.

This was my face upon those realisations:

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And so, despite having games I bought more than two years ago still wrapped in their original plastic covering, I decided it was imperative that I purchase The Last of Us immediately.

After returning, however, I didn’t rip into the game right away. It’s hard to describe, but I liken it to starting a new writing project — you’re excited but you’re also terrified of the commitment it’s going to take to get through to the end. Accordingly — and I’m not kidding — I spent one night admiring the cover (both front and back), and another reading the Japanese instructions manual (front to back).

And then, I was ready.

This post and those to follow it will be a diary of my experience playing The Last of Us. There could be some mild spoilers, but I’ll keep the big revelations concealed for those who want to check it out for themselves.

Day 1 (May 5, 2015)

– Man, I miss the days when you can just plug in a cartridge, turn on the system, and get playing right away. These days, you have to first log in to the Playstation interface, select the game, and then, just when you’re pumped to go, it tells you that you have to update the “system” and install some underlying game files. The same went for The Last of Us, meaning I had to wait about another 15 minutes before I could actually get into the game.

– I also missed the old loading times, or lack thereof. You don’t notice it once you’re into the game, but in the beginning The Last of Us took so long to load I thought the game had stuffed up.

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You see this a lot in the beginning

– Finally, we’re in. The first thing that struck me about the game was how cinematic it looks and feels. Games these days all tend to go down the cinematic route, with Heavy Rain in particular sticking out in my mind (I haven’t played a lot, as you can tell), though The Last of Us takes it to another level. The camera angles, the cuts, the spot-on musical score — it’s no wonder a movie version is in the works, set for release in 2016. It’ll be easy — the director can probably just take scenes from the game and film them again in exactly the same way.

– The opening scene of the game is an eerie one that sets up the calm before the storm. The protagonist, Joel, returns home from a long day of work and his baby girl is waiting for him. It’s a sweet little scene that takes minimal time to construct a genuine father-daughter relationship before the shit hits the fan. And boy does the shit hit with a splatter. As most of you know, The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic horror-survival drama game (what a mouthful) set 20 years after a viral outbreak that has wiped out most of civilization.

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So sad

– After the trauma of that superbly executed opening sequence — which holds its own against any post-apocalyptic zombie movie in recent years — we get the intro credits, a work of art in its own right. It’s stylish, informative, and reminds me of the openings of the best shows on TV in the modern era.

– When the credits finish rolling, the story moves forward by 20 years. There are a few safe/quarantine zones scattered around, with martial law being the norm. Joel has become a member of a shady group of smugglers in Boston. And here’s my first complaint about the game — he looks a little too similar to how he did 20 years ago; just greyer hair, a bushier beard and a few more wrinkles around the eyes. Perhaps the difference is more noticeable on the PS4 version, but the numbers don’t fully add up. We have to assume Joel was probably in his mid-30s in the opening scene, meaning he would have been in his mid-50s by the time the game begins “properly”. And he looks a little too buffed for a dude living in a world where food is insanely scarce. I think I thinner Joel would have been more realistic, and perhaps a clean shaven young (or stubble) Joel would have brought out the age difference more.

Young Joel vs Old Joel

Young Joel vs Old Joel

That brings me to the end of my first day of playing and Part I of my Last of Us Diary. I only played it for about 20 minutes, but I’m starting to feel that the hype surrounding this game is not unwarranted. Seriously, I already think it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and I haven’t even done anything!

Stay tuned for Part II.

PS: Just about everyone I spoke to about the game said I should have gotten a PS4 so I could play the remastered version of the game released last year. It was tempting, but ultimately I knew it wouldn’t be a wise investment given how little I get to play consoles these days. Besides, the graphics on the PS3 look good enough to me.

Mayweather-Pacquiao: Dud of the Century

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Boxing, Sport by pacejmiller

Manny Pacquiao failed to deliver two promises on Saturday evening at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The first was that he would hand Floyd “Money” Mayweather his first defeat in 48 professional fights. The second was that he would give fans an exciting fight. While he could blame Mayweather for failing the first promise, Pacquiao was just as much to blame for the second. And so after five years of speculation, close calls, failed negotiations, name-calling, lawsuits and serendipitous meetings at Miami Heat basketball games, the so-called Fight of the Century turned out to be one huge stinking dud.

Before the Fight

The atmosphere before the fight lived up to the hype. Just about all the biggest names in sports and entertainment were there (see this link for a full list with pictures), either due to their connections (ie, Floyd’s buddy Justin Bieber, Showtime stars like Claire Danes, boxing royalty like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, or sponsor-related celebs like Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s there to promote his new boxing flick Southpaw) or their huge wallets capable of paying the exorbitant ticket prices (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, etc). It was the richest gate in sports history (ticket sales alone generated US$74 million), with even the shittiest ticket in the nosebleeds section costing just under US$3,000 according to StubHub.

The PPV numbers are not yet available, but they are expected to blow away the record of 2.48 million buys from the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight in 2007. The actual money amount will be astronomical, considering PPV prices are also significantly higher than for other bouts, with people paying US$90 for the fight (and US$100 for it in HD) in the United States and slightly cheaper prices in most other places on the planet (only a handful of countries such as Mexico, China and the Philippines aired it for free).

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The demand was so high that the start time of the actual main event was delayed by approximately 45 minutes due to troubles encountered by people trying to order the PPV from their providers.

I was rooting for the Filipino and predicted a Pacquiao victory not just because he apparently possessed all the tools on paper to give Mayweather trouble (southpaw, speed, power, footwork, stamina, high work rate, awkward angles), but also because the American seemed to be genuinely spooked by the occasion. Mayweather appeared nervous at all the public events and even told reporters he no longer had the passion for the sport and was looking forward to retiring after one final fight in September.

He was uncharacteristically polite and passive, a far cry from his old ways of trash talking and acting brash and disrespectful towards opponents, and he continued to be plagued by reports that dredged up his history of domestic violence. It seemed like Pacquiao, who acted relaxed and confident throughout the promotion, had won the psychological battle, and I felt the Mayweather camp was rattled judging from the last minute reports claiming that it had tried — unsuccessfully — to block Pacquiao from using his commission-approved gloves for the fight. It also didn’t help that reports surfaced today alleging that Mayweather attempted to block certain female journalists who harped on his domestic abuse charges.

Pacquiao also appeared to land the first blow — figuratively speaking — when he entered the ring smiling and with plenty of confidence as his coach Freddie Roach snapped a selfie on his phone. He even allowed talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to take an unsubtle jab at Justin Bieber, who is part of Mayweather’s entourage and infamously crashed the introductory press conference a couple of months ago.

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Jimmy Kimmel joins Manny Pacquiao’s ring entrance entourage on May 2

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Justin Bieber pops out of nowhere during the kick-off conference in March

The Fight

Everything I said above may have been true, but none of it mattered once the two fighters got into the ring. I hate to break it to those still in denial, but the fight wasn’t close. You can hate on Floyd Mayweather Jr all your want, but you can’t deny his skills. Tonight, Mayweather proved he was the best boxer of his generation. Five years ago, who knows what the outcome would have been, but all that matters is what actually happened. For the record, I believe the outcome would have been the same because Mayweather’s just that much better and his physical advantages are too difficult to overcome.

Freddie Roach claimed that he had the perfect game plan — one he had been honing and perfecting over the past five years — and that Pacquiao was probably going to win every round. Well, it became clear after round one that Pacquiao had an uphill climb ahead of him. The Filipino needed to get off to a good start and probably should have rushed Mayweather from the opening bell to assert himself, but instead he was overly passive and spent too long posturing and feinting. Mayweather won the first three rounds, or at least two of the first three, with his accuracy, counterpunching, and ability to dictate of the pace.

Pacquiao had his moments in the next three rounds, but only when he managed to trap Mayweather against the ropes so he could launch his patented flurries. Most of the heavy blows, however, were either blocked or deflected. In terms of jabs and single shots in the middle of the ring, however, Mayweather dominated. It was simply a master class in how to control distance and range. Mayweather perfected using his 5-inch reach advantage to keep Pacquiao at bay, and clinching or arm-locking whenever Pacquiao got too close. Having referee Kenny Bayless, who typically allows Mayweather to get away with a certain amount of holding, didn’t help matters. It was frustrating and boring, but it was a brilliant strategy.

Before the fight, I thought Pacquiao had a decent chance because of his volume punching. I believed if he kept punching and overwhelmed Mayweather’s output he would be favoured by the judges. But against Mayweather, his punch rate suddenly came crashing down. It’s not an anomaly because it’s happened to every volume puncher Mayweather has ever faced. It goes back to Mayweather’s ability to control range, because Pacquiao knows there’s no point in throwing punches that have no chance of landing. It also says something about Mayweather’s underrated power. If those counterpunches didn’t sting, Pacquiao wouldn’t have grown so reluctant in coming forward. He knew he couldn’t be reckless and try to walk through Mayweather’s punches in order to land his own because he knew those shots could hurt him.

Mayweather’s not the same type of counterpuncher as Juan Manuel Marquez, the man who gave Pacquiao fits in their four fights and brutally knocked him out in their last matchup. JMM takes huge risks and gambles on his counters, which is why Pacquiao’s had success against him too, but Mayweather is a counterpuncher who plays it safe because he can.

The result was as one-sided as many of Mayweather’s other fights. 118-110 one one scorecard and a generous 116-112 on two others for a unanimous Mayweather victory. I had it 117-111 on my sloppy unofficial scorecard. Here’s how the judges scored each round.

mayweather pacquiao official scorecard

Anyone claiming that Pacquiao won — including himself — or that it was a close fight is deluding themselves. Your eyes or heart may deceive you, but the stats don’t lie. Compubox is not a perfect science, but in this case it’s an accurate indication of what took place.

floydpac compubox

Mayweather landed 67 more punches than Pacquiao at 15% more accuracy. The most startling stat is that Mayweather ended up throwing more punches than Pacquiao did overall. In a fight where just about everyone thought Pacquiao would need to throw 800 punches to win, he ended up throwing barely half that. Full credit to Mayweather for turning the usually tornado-like Pacquiao into just another fighter who thought he could outbox the master.

I mistakenly predicted a Pacquiao victory partly because big boxing matches usually turn out to be unpredictable, but the it ended up being one of those rare fights where everything pretty much went according to how fight experts predicted it could go. Pacquiao would have his moments early, when his best chances were available, but Mayweather would eventually figure it out — as he always does — and dominate the rest of the way. The only thing unexpected was that Pacquiao would be so passive to start the fight and allow Mayweather to claim those precious early rounds.

Unfortunately, Mayweather’s dominance — and Pacquiao’s reluctance — turned the Fight of the Century into a total bore. Brilliant performance? Sure. Exciting? Hell no. I can appreciate technical skills better than most, but for a fight of this magnitude the fans deserved more. A lot more.

Boos rained down on Mayweather when he proclaimed victory at the end of the fight and when they announced the decision, and while some of them were aimed at him as a person, I believe a lot of them were directed at the way he turned the fight into a snoozefest. There was no genuine action, no serious exchanges, nothing close to resembling a knockdown, and no one was ever in serious trouble or hurt from a big shot. Mayweather danced around, held, and ran some more, not just avoiding action but actively preventing it from happening. There may have been some natural tension early on, but even that evaporated as Mayweather’s tactics became a predictable pattern.

Mayweather deserves the bulk of the blame because that’s his style, but the typically exciting Pacquiao isn’t fault-free either. Perhaps it was his brutal KO loss to JMM a couple of years ago that made him so wary, but when the fight was clearly getting away he didn’t exactly go for broke either. With US$100 million-plus heading into his bank, Pacquiao probably decided it wasn’t worth risking his health for glory. I would have much rather seen him get knocked out trying to score the knockout himself rather than trying to feint Mayweather to death. And that’s what 80%-90% of the fight was: feinting and posturing. It was a chess match that was more boring than watching actual chess matches.

After the Fight

Everyone was disappointed. “Underwhelmed” was an extremely popular word on Twitter. I may have rooted for Pacquiao but the thing I wanted above all was an exciting fight that would come at least 70% to meeting expectations. This fight was about a 15%.

There were the Pactards and blind boxing novices claiming that Pacquiao had been robbed, that the sport is corrupt, etc, with some even going as far as slamming ESPN’s post-fight interviewer Max Kellerman for daring to press Pacquiao about how he could have possibly thought he won. Can you imagine the same thing happening if Mayweather was in Pacquiao’s position? Not hating, just pointing out the hypocrisy.

The internets was flooded with the same arguments Mayweather has faced for years — that he ran like a coward and didn’t dare to exchange in a real fight, like a real man. But that’s where his genius and understanding of the rules of boxing come into play. Do you think his career would have lasted as long as it has if he decided to go toe-to-toe with every foe? Do you think there would be as many people hoping that he would get knocked out every time he stepped into the ring?

The biggest flaw with the running argument, at least in this fight, is that Mayweather was actually more active than Pacquiao. Forget that he landed nearly twice as many punches. He actually threw more punches than Pacquiao. If he simply ran, how could he have won? It wasn’t as though the judges awarded Mayweather for evading Pacquiao’s punches. He landed a lot more at greater accuracy in almost every round. End of story.

That did not stop the excuses from rolling in immediately after the verdict. The Pacquiao camp revealed that the Filipino fought with a tear in his shoulder and that he was denied an anti-inflammatory shot before the fight. Not to be outdone, Mayweather claimed that both his arms and hands were injured either prior to or during the fight.

My Facebook feed became flooded with articles slamming Mayweather’s character and his woman-beating tendencies, and claims that he will never be respected no matter how many Manny Pacquiaos he beats. I suppose it comes with the territory of having been a complete prick for so many years, but even I felt all the media attacks in the aftermath of a career-defining victory were below the belt.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the fight again and I’m not sure I want to put myself through the pain for a second time. Big fights often disappoint; I can think of a few I was really amped up for that failed to meet expectations, but none were as disappointing as Mayweather-Pacquiao. Accordingly, my final impression of the fight will likely be Mayweather’s best blow of the fight — when he thanked God first in his post-fight interview. As someone irked by Pacquiao’s repeated “God will deliver him into my hands” remarks before the fight– no offense intended to any of my lovely Christian friends — I kinda liked that final insult to cap off all the stinging right hands and counters he fed Pacquiao all night.

Where to Now

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Mayweather insists he will fight just once more, this September, before riding off into the sunset for good. He seems genuine about this, and I believe he will carry through with the promise unless he desperately needs money again in the future — which is quite likely if you’ve heard the stories about his spending habits. Potential opponents include American young gun Keith Thurman, a 26-year-old heavy-handed fighter also with an unblemished unbeaten record (25 wins, 21KOs and 1 no contest — from an accidental headbutt in the first round), as well as Brit Amir Khan, who has a glass jaw but the height (5’9″), reach (71″), speed and boxing skills to potentially give Mayweather trouble on paper. Personally, I’d like to see him take on both guys to erase all doubts and retire at 50-0, breaking Rocky Marciano’s celebrated record.

As for Pacquiao, he said he’ll take a break and leave the rest to his promoter Bob Arum. To be honest, this loss doesn’t affect his legacy all that much. He lost to a better boxer on the night, not because he’s over the hill or a shot fighter. He’s still loved in the Philippines, where he’ll probably become president one day, and people still love to watch him fight. Against the right opponents there’s no reason why he won’t still be a massive PPV draw.

Roach and Pacquiao said they would like to push for a rematch in light of the shoulder injury revelation. There’s no rematch clause in the contract, but considering how much money the two will make (estimates for Mayweather are as high as US$180 million), the temptation must be there to do it all over again. Given how one-sided this fight turned out to be — and especially seeing that Pacquiao no longer has one-punch knockout power to give himself a puncher’s chance — it’s not something I want to see.

PS: The most exciting fight of the night was actually on the undercard. Vasyl Lomachenko, Ukranian amateur star, proved once again that he’s going to be the next P4P best fighter on the planet with his impressive destruction of the game but outgunned Gamalier Rodriguez. It was just Lomachenko’s fifth professional fight and the featherweight displayed an offensive aggression reminiscent of the Pacquiao of old and the technical brilliance and precision of Mayweather. Check out the highlights from that fight.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Avengers was an ambitious experiment that surprisingly succeeded despite the naysayers and the weight of expectations. The idea that you could create an ensemble superhero feature by taking a bunch of characters with their own franchises was risky, but thanks to the genius of Joss Whedon it turned out to be one of best superhero films of all time.

And so I was excited about the inevitable sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I was also wary of unreasonable expectations. After all, what else could they do to improve on what was essentially a near-perfect formula?

As it turns out, not a whole lot. Joss Whedon tried a few new things and did all he could lift the bar again on the coolness and wow factors, though when you boil it down, Avengers 2 is basically the same movie as its predecessor. For a lot of people, that’s good enough.

You have the same superstar cast with a few notable new additions, some fresh faces and some familiar faces from existing franchises (I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say there were will be surprises unless you’ve been following the production closely). You have eye-popping special effects that turn the screen into a beautiful and coordinated mess of flying bodies, projectiles and explosions. You have an intelligent villain who controls an army of fairly useless robots and appears to have a bunch of mysterious schemes, but all he really wants to do is what all supervillains want to do: destroy Earth. And of course tensions will flare between our heroes and all will seem bleak, but in the end they realise — yet again — that unity is their greatest strength.

Running alongside this proven formula is all the stuff the comic book geeks want. Most of it will likely go right over he heads of regular viewers, but from what I understand there were plenty of well-placed leads into other characters and comics in the Marvel universe that set up the future direction of the franchise as a whole (you can read up on all that in your spare time if you can be bothered).

Despite not doing a whole lot different, Avengers 2 is still an entertaining blast fans of the first film will no doubt enjoy. Whedon finds creative ways to pit different members of the Avengers against each other and show off cool new powers and gadgets, while also giving existing characters opportunities to develop and evolve. Much of it is fairly shallow but I suppose it’s better than not trying at all.

The action itself is also varied and clever so that it’s not just a rehash or imitation of what has been done before. As usual, it’s all heavily reliant on CGI, though it’s done seamlessly enough that it allows you to be immersed in the action. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s an upgrade from the original, but it’s at least different enough so you realise you’re not watching the same film.

The cast is of course spectacular, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (also known as the shittier members of the Avengers) getting upgraded roles to get equal screen time — at least — with the main leads of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans. Of the four, it felt like only Chris Evans did not display noticeable signs of character fatigue. Downey Jr, in particular, simply looks like he’s fed up with playing the same character over and over, and he’s pretty much said as much interviews about the future of Iron Man.

The two new characters introduced are Soviet twins the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) — who coincidentally played wife and husband in Godzilla last year. The former has mind control powers and what appears to be a similar power to The Force, while the latter has the ability to move extremely fast. Both were kind of disappointing, to be honest, partly because of the strained Russian accents and partly because they don’t get much time to develop, especially Quicksilver, who pales in comparison to the version of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past played by Evan Peters.

The titular villain, Ultron, voiced by James Spader, received a lot of attention throughout the production but ultimately wasn’t as impressive as I thought he would be. He’s formidable and intelligent, much like Loki was in The Avengers, but he didn’t add as much to the table as I had wanted. Spader’s voice is great, but never did I feel like he was truly capable of defeating the Avengers.

On the whole, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t as fun as The Avengers, but Joss Whedon fuels it with just enough enthusiasm and excitement for me to rate the experience as on par with its predecessor. As a piece of popcorn entertainment there’s not much I can complain about. He took the “why fix it if it ain’t broke” approach, upped the ante on the action and special effects, took the characters to the next level in their natural progressions, added some faces he knew fans would like to see, created new branches for future storylines, and even threw in a few nice little surprises.  It is of course not as fresh as the original, and it’s also not as funny, though all things considered the film takes the Avengers formula about as far as it can go. From here, it’s clear that Marvel has even bigger things planned for the future, and while the Avengers could very well return in future films, their presence and involvement will have to be very different to what it has been.

4 stars out of 5

PS: There’s a short mid-credits scene this time, but don’t bother sticking around until the end because there’s nothing there.

Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)

April 20, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Fast & Furious franchise has more or less perfected the craft — a team of familiar characters and stars, suped-up cars, scantily clad women, stylised violence, over-the-top action sequences and a truckload of cheesy one-liners. It’s a formula that has worked wonders for the last few entries, and Furious 7 takes it up yet another notch notwithstanding a major director change from Justin Lin to James Wan. Though Wan is known as a master of horror (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), the Aussie legend doesn’t miss a beat.

As I’m not a car fanatic and can’t stop thinking of Mini-me on steroids whenever I see Vin Diesel’s face, I’ve always been somewhat “meh” about the Fast & Furious franchise. This time, however, I stopped hoping for something I knew I was never going to get and just went along for the ride. As a result, I had a blast. If you’re after the ultimate popcorn movie, look no further — this is it.

The film takes place after the events of Fast 6 and around the time of Tokyo Drift (the third film in the franchise), which unfortunately means we are missing the cool Asian guy (Han) and is hot Israeli girlfriend (Gisele), with Sung Kang and Gal Gadot relegated to brief flashbacks, though Tokyo’s new drift king, Lucas Black, does make a triumphant return in a cameo, looking about 10 years older for some strange reason (racing with Mini-me must have taken a lot out of him).

On the bright side, the loss of Han and Gisele ensures more time for the other characters and offers enough room for the addition of Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays a hacker Kurt Russell wants Mini-me’s gang to track down so the US government can get their hands back on a super surveillance device called God’s Eye. The trade-off is that if Mini-me can get it for Russell he’ll be able to use it to track down supervillain Jason Statham, who plays the big brother of the baddie from the last movie (Luke Evans).

This premise allows the film to do several things. It still gets to do the whole heist thing that has worked well for the franchise the last few times, while also setting up epic set pieces to showcase the talents of the characters and cast. Apart from crazy car stunts, the film is highlighted by several brutal one-on-one confrontations. The Rock, Mini-me, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez all have their own well-choreographed fight scenes, but the best ones of course involve Statham, who absolutely shines in this role with his slick moves and brooding charisma, and elevates the movie several levels above what it should have been. He’s the perfect addition and the most memorable villain in the franchise — by far.

Two other new characters to steal a couple of scenes are MMA queen Ronda Rousey and Thai martial arts expert Tony Jaa, each of whom get to show off their stuff by squaring off against members of Mini-me’s gang. The only guy who doesn’t get to do much is Djimon Hounsou, a bland secondary villain who pales in comparison to Statham.

So just when you thought the batshit insanity of the last two films the franchise could not be topped, here comes this masterclass in how to depict over-the-top action, car chases and violence on the big screen. Cars and bodies are constantly being tossed, crashed into and mangled throughout, in ways that would be laughable had everyone involved not embraced the absurdity with so much genuine enthusiasm and confidence. Everyone’s pretty much indestructible unless they need to die.

This is the type of movie that The Expendables wants to be and what Michael Bay has been trying to make every time he sits in the director’s chair. What sets Furious 7 apart is the creativity and the overall sense of fun. It’s not just big, loud explosions all the time and obnoxious characters shooting things with massive guns. Furious 7 has likable characters who take on their tasks with just the right amount of cheesiness, and they’re put in situations we might not have necessarily seen before. You can complain about the cliches and the bad dialogue and the stupidity of it all, or you can embrace it like I finally am.

Of course, everyone will remember this one as Paul Walker’s last film after the actor died tragically in a car crash before the film was completed. Furious 7 does a great job of finishing off his scenes with his brothers as stand-ins coupled with CGI effects, and more importantly it provides him with a moving tribute by offering his character a fitting send-off. He’ll be missed, but with The Rock and Jason Statham likely becoming franchise regulars, there should be some life left in this series yet.

4 stars out of 5

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