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    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 4/5CHICAGO– Move over, Superman. This lush, high-octane playboy never tasted so good.

    Robert Downey Jr. fittingly opens “Iron Man” with a cocktail in hand and all the arrogance in the world. As the story goes, his conceit is indeed respected as Earth is his oyster both for the playing and for the taking.

    With the American marketing machine in full effect for 2008’s first summer blockbuster, the inaugural one lives up to the buildup.

    Iron Man is in the throes of a pitched battle with a determined nemesis in Iron Man
    Iron Man is in the throes of a pitched battle with a determined nemesis in “Iron Man”.
    Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic

    “Iron Man” has already not only etched itself the mark of the first indisputable blockbuster of 2008 and one of the best-reviewed films so far in 2008 but also one of the highest-rated superhero movies of all time – yes, of all time. The film deserves every million it makes.

    Even before he’s Iron Man, Downey Jr. is authentically transformative as the lush, cash-flushed, comedic, all-powerful and all-knowing Tony Stark.

    Even those who aren’t fans of the comic series and just enjoy quality entertainment will fall prey to his allure and the blockbuster power of the film in general.

    Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts – Stark’s assistant who keeps him functioning and even remembers his social security number for him – is indeed the subservient, selfless character she’s written to be. Hollywood gives her killer hair, too. Paltrow took the role only after Rachel McAdams turned it down.

    Jeff Bridges stars as Obadiah Stane in Iron Man
    Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane in “Iron Man”.
    Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal

    The Chicago-born Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes – a friend to Stark and sometimes even his unknowing enemy – plays his typical supporting role. Only have we seen Howard as a co-lead in the Warner Bros. flop “The Brave One” (opposite Jodie Foster).

    As portrayed in the film version of “Iron Man,” Jeff Bridges as co-worker Obadiah Stane – and later Iron Man’s nemesis (the Iron Monger) – is a tough nut to crack.

    While the bald head and bushy face worked wonders for his villainous demeanor, his character development got adversely shafted and edited.

    You can’t buy his progression from “do what it takes to get the job done and stuff our pockets fat with cash” guy to “I instigated a mutiny against you in your own company” guy to “I am Iron Monger and I crafted a bigger, badder suit to pound you”.

    Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in his battle-scarred Mark III armor in Iron Man
    Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in his battle-scarred Mark III armor in “Iron Man”.
    Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal

    You’re never even convinced that Bridges as Stane has the aptitude to steal Stark’s invention, reverse engineer it and spew out his own malevolent model.

    Moviegoers will likely overlook and forgive this character transgression in favor of the raw badassness of the film as a whole.

    While he’s behind the scenes and is even briefly in a couple, the success of “Iron Man” shouldn’t go without the mention of director Jon Favreau in the same sentence.

    Admittedly, I was biting my nails feverishly about whether or not Favreau had it in him. After only directing “Elf” as another notable film, Favreau directing “Iron Man” was a make-or-break proposition. He delivered and it’ll elevate his career in gargantuan proportions.

    It should also be noted that Favreau almost didn’t direct “Iron Man”. Instead, he was originally going to direct the 2009 film “Captain America” (2009) as a superhero comedy adventure. With no previous superhero directing experience, Favreau instead chose to direct “Iron Man”. He chose wisely.

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    It should also be noted that Quentin Tarantino in Oct. 1999 was approached to write and direct “Iron Man,” which is Marvel’s first self-financed movie.

    Favreau describes “Iron Man” as a “kind of independent film espionage thriller crossbreed” and “a Robert Altman-directed ‘Superman’ (1978) with shades of Tom Clancy novels, James Bond films, ‘RoboCop’ (1987) and ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)”. Harkening back to his Altman influence, Favreau often preferred dialogue improvisation.

    Interestingly, Downey Jr. this week told hired movie and music gun David Letterman that Favreau avoided CGI effects and shot scenes for real when possible. In addition to delivering a memorable performance in “Love & Sex” in 2000, Favreau was money in “Swingers” in 1996.

    “Iron Man” opened on May 2, 2008.

    HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman

    By ADAMFENDELMAN
    Editor-in-Chief
    HollywoodChicago.com
    adam@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2008 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com

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    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.5/5CHICAGO– While Hollywood slapped “PG” on the hotly anticipated “Speed Racer” to line its pocketbooks with the widest hodgepodge of people (ahem: kids) everywhere, those same kids will leave the theater with that lollipop nearly sucked to the stick but then yanked away with confusion.

    Rather than the “go!” marketing hype, this is a stop-and-go proposition. Chicago brothers Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski are ultimately wrangling with a clear identity crisis of who this film is meant for.

    Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer
    Emile Hirsch in “Speed Racer”.
    Photo credit: Warner Bros.

    Is it the 1967 crowd who adored the American anime version following the Japanese manga creation?

    Emile Hirsch (top) and Christina Ricci in Speed Racer
    Emile Hirsch (top) and Christina Ricci in “Speed Racer”.
    Photo credit: Warner Bros.

    Is it for today’s children who didn’t grow up with the franchise but will magically identify with it from scratch because it’s on the big screen? Perhaps it’s for “The Matrix” crowd who slobber over the Wachowski’s sensory orgy?

    A slathering of all of the above will be influenced by the omnipresent advertising and power of the Wachowski name, which has been catapulted to stardom with the trail-blazing triumph of “The Matrix” films.

    But with summer blockbuster season in full effect for 2008, moviegoers won’t spend in droves the way they recently did with “Iron Man,” which is so far the best-reviewed film of the year.

    With a production budget of $140 million, “Iron Man” has already earned $220 million in worldwide box-office receipts in its first six days of release, according to Box Office Mojo. With a production budget of $100 million, “Speed Racer” won’t see those kind of box-office numbers.

    Despite its bevy of blemishes, you can’t deny its color. There’s an intense vibrancy to the environment that – while unrealistic in the real world – is beautifully charming in Hollywood’s CGIville.

    Knowing they had to hop beyond another planet in the solar system following 2003’s “The Matrix Revolutions,” the Wachowskis don’t disappoint in the “Speed Racer” special effects department.

    The brothers continue to break new ground, and in doing so, they play an important role in inspiring other visionaries to forge new lines of thinking.

    Matthew Fox (middle) in Speed Racer
    Matthew Fox (middle) in “Speed Racer”.
    Photo credit: Warner Bros.

    Just as “The Matrix” in 1999 had sequences that have been among the most emulated in Hollywood today over the past decade, the Wachowskis continue to up their own bar.

    As for Emile Hirsch as the namesake Speed Racer character, his meek and chill demeanor off the racetrack and then world-champion talent on it displays light years of transformation. This is only one year after playing a wilderness hitchhiker in the Oscar-nominated 2007 film “Into the Wild”.

    That, too, came a long way from the boy Hirsch played in “The Girl Next Door”.

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    As Hirsch returns to boyhood in “Speed Racer” under the inspiration of John Goodman as his “Pops” and Susan Sarandon as his mom, you’re left with the sense that he works in the playful role but hasn’t quite figured out his destiny in the bird’s eye view of his acting career.

    Christina Ricci – who bested Rose McGowan (the Wachowskis felt she was too old) for the part of Trixie in “Speed Racer” – has also come full circle since memorably playing Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family” in 1991. Due to the campy nature of “Speed Racer,” she has on one hand grown up and on another regressed back to that same child.

    Larry Wachowski, by the way, is not actually Lana Wachowski. Because the Wachowski brothers decline interviews with the press, rumors surfaced in 2003 that Larry was undergoing a sex change. In 2007, Wachowski producer Joel Silver debunked the rumor. He said: “They just don’t do interviews, so people make things up.”

    In April 2008, news surfaced that the reclusive Wachowski brothers will be opening a post-production studio on Chicago’s north side.

    “Speed Racer” opened on May 9, 2008.

    HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman

    By ADAMFENDELMAN
    Editor-in-Chief
    HollywoodChicago.com
    adam@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2008 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com

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    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.0/5.0
    Rating: 2.0/5.0

    CHICAGO– With superhero films as hot in 2008 as psychedelics were in the 1960s, the new blockbuster superhero film “Hancock” fits in with the label but without any of the ancestry.

    While 2008 superhero films such as “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Dark Knight,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and “Punisher: War Zone” (along with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” coming in 2009) are all based on previous stories with a previously ravenous fan base, “Hancock” with an alcoholic and listless Will Smith and Charlize Theron – who hides a surprise bombshell – literally comes from nowhereland.

    Charlize Theron (left) and Will Smith in Hancock
    Charlize Theron (left) and Will Smith in “Hancock”.
    Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

    In fact, “Hancock” is the only 2008 superhero film not derived from a previously established comic book.

    Will Smith in Hancock
    Will Smith in “Hancock”.
    Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

    The original script for “Hancock,” which was inked by Vincent Ngo in 1996 and called “Tonight, He Comes,” was shuffled through the Hollywood director’s circuit until director Peter Berg (“The Kingdom,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Rundown”) finally ate it up in Oct. 2006. Filming began in July 2007.

    Its truly original origin could have either been its golden savior or its deadly assassin. The decision ultimately proved treacherous as everything it tried to do to be different just made it the same.

    Its originality actually might not seem so novel, too, once you consider the 1983 film “The Return of Captain Invincible”. In that film, Alan Arkin plays Captain Invincible and Christopher Lee plays his nemesis (Mr. Midnight).

    Captain Invincible is asked to return from retirement to the superhero battlefields, but this time around, he’s a raging alcoholic. Sound familiar? Uh huh.

    Upon closer scrutiny, the principal downfall of “Hancock” isn’t even in the question of its origins but more in the forcefulness of its script. “Hancock” felt entirely too written. A good film, of course, is written eloquently well – so well, in fact, that you forget it’s written. A hackneyed story feels forcefully written.

    Will Smith (center) Hancock
    Will Smith (center) “Hancock”.
    Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

    After writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan launched off on their journey to script a man who can demolish the street beneath him at the mere jetting away into the sky, they added Superman-like strength. As for where to go next, you can actually feel them pondering the decision. They then inked something cliché because they were already committed to the process and the big Hollywood dollars would be on the line.

    Now Smith’s cliché costuming to look the superhero part was actually the least cliché part of the entire script. Smith’s character despised it, appeared awkward in it and actually successfully sold you on more authentically being that inebriated chap. Sporting a costume that looked like it could have been purchased at Walgreen’s on a man who felt more comfortable being naked was refreshingly witty.

    Will Smith (second from left), Jason Bateman (second from right) and Charlize Theron in Hancock
    Will Smith (second from left), Jason Bateman (second from right) and Charlize Theron in “Hancock”.
    Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

    All in all, we can’t be satisfied with all the “Hancock” plot twists and turns because we didn’t get to the heart of what actually makes a superhero a superhero. Will Smith himself doesn’t know and couldn’t tell you if you asked him – even after he has been jailed, rehabilitated and PR spun by Jason Bateman who’s trying to change the world.

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    While it is a bit of a twist to make your “good” superhero hated and then needed and then loved once he learns to love himself, focusing on that internal exploration of the superhero felt like the self-discovery process should have happened privately with Dr. Phil rather than as a central plotline in a major Hollywood film.

    Now Charlize Theron’s character had teeth. Will Smith as an anonymous “John Hancock” who can’t remember his genesis is branded by the film as a Bruce Willis-like “Unbreakable” character, but who the heck is Charlize Theron? Is she just the scorching wife of PR man Jason Bateman or does she have something incredible up her sleeve, too?

    “Hancock” director Peter Berg would have been better served directing this script with a focus on her as the central character – a character who veils who she really is under the guise of humanity rather than the bumbling, stumbling Will Smith who merely cloaks his superhero depression with a bottle. Any takers for “The Incredible Housewife”?

    “Hancock,” which features Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman and director Michael Mann in a small acting role, opened everywhere on July 2, 2008.

    HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman

    By ADAMFENDELMAN
    Editor-in-Chief
    HollywoodChicago.com
    adam@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2008 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com

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    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
    Rating: 2.5/5.0

    CHICAGO– Hellboy is plugged as the world’s brawniest, kitten-loving superhero. While that paradox is supposed to be both funny and action packed, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” from famed writer and director Guillermo del Toro falls flat on the funny front and instead winds up on the funny farm.

    Amid a superhero-laden 2008 with true blockbusters including “The Dark Knight” (opening on July 18, 2008), “Iron Man,” “Hancock,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Punisher: War Zone” (opening on Dec. 5, 2008), “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” had just as much potential but reveals only semi-blockbuster status.

    Hellboy (Ron Perlman) does battle with an elemental in Hellboy II: The Golden Army
    Hellboy (Ron Perlman) does battle with an elemental in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”.
    Photo credit: Double Negative, copyright Universal Studios

    On the heels of the majestically dark “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro regresses from perhaps his finest film hour to his among his greatest misfires in the action-packed but story-miscued film about a tough-talking hellspawn who wages war against rebellious and ridiculous creatures.

    Writer and director Guillermo del Toro tries on Hellboy's right hand of doom on the set of Hellboy II: The Golden Army
    Writer and director Guillermo del Toro tries on Hellboy’s right hand of doom on the set of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”.
    Photo credit: Egon Endrenyi, copyright Universal Studios

    If you recall 2004’s “Hellboy” at all, it’s not likely because of the $60 million in domestic dollars the film raked in theatrically or its $100 million worldwide total in theaters. Rather, “Hellboy” earned cult-following status from its subsequent DVD release. It’s that launch pad that’s propelling “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” with steam in 2008.

    But while the film will show an improved box-office balance sheet and critically is earning rave reviews, don’t be fooled by the hype machine. Guillermo del Toro delivers the Hollywood filet mignon we’ve come to expect wrapped nicely in all the special-effects bacon we’ve come to desire but without the heart we’ve come to demand.

    Do we care about any of these characters? Do we care if this one actually falls in love or if that one actually lives or dies or if this one makes amends or if that one comes to terms with destiny? What we do feel isn’t for the characters, their missions or the performances they deliver.

    All we do feel is gypped that Hollywood took our 10 movie bucks and gave us flat characters, forced plotlines and ultimately a mediocre movie experience.

    The initial adolescent Hellboy backstory begins with Montse Ribé – yes, a female – as the young Hellboy. She’s credited with doing special effects makeup for Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and should stay in the special effects and makeup departments instead of behing handed her first acting role.

    Ruthless leader Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) challenges his enemy in Hellboy II: The Golden Army
    Ruthless leader Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) challenges his enemy in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”.
    Photo credit: Double Negative, copyright Universal Studios

    The child acting and costuming weakly stood out larger than even kid Hellboy’s right hand of doom.

    Ron Perlman as Hellboy and “A”-gamer Selma Blair return as a duo from Guillermo del Toro’s first iteration of “Hellboy” in 2004. This time around, we’re treated to the same mediocrity spewed upon us then. What we didn’t expect – and what wasn’t advertised – is that the most interesting characters in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” were in fact the supplementary ones.

    Writer and director Guillermo del Toro holds Hellboy's revolver on the set of Hellboy II: The Golden Army
    Writer and director Guillermo del Toro holds Hellboy’s revolver on the set of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”.
    Photo credit: Egon Endrenyi, copyright Universal Studios

    Ancillary creations Abe Sapien and Johann Kraus and their respective performances from Doug Jones and James Dodd (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) had the right idea the rest of the film fatally ignored. Now these organisms – Abe as an aquatic “merman” and Johann as a disembodied ectoplasmic spirit – had charm, intrigue and character appeal.

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    As well, we can appreciate the ruthless creature leader Luke Goss as the spear-fanatical Prince Nuada and the saccharine Anna Walton as the interestingly entwined Princess Nuala. This brother-and-sister duo earns scripting props.

    But “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” isn’t about them. While the four supplementary characters deliver admirable supporting roles and performances, the film ultimately leaves you feeling “eh” because at its heart is a superhero who’d be just as fine fighting adversaries as he is taking a nap or petting a cat.

    Following a magnum opus in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and a red-hot backfire in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” Guillermo del Toro raises a red, hit-or-miss flag on his upcoming blockbuster projects “The Hobbit” in 2011 and “The Hobbit 2” directly after in 2012.

    “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” which is written and directed by Guillermo del Toro and stars Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Seth MacFarlane, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Doug Jones, John Hurt and Jeffrey Tambor, opened everywhere on July 11, 2008.

    HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman

    By ADAMFENDELMAN
    Editor-in-Chief
    HollywoodChicago.com
    adam@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2008 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com

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    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
    Rating: 3.5/5.0

    CHICAGO– “Iron Man 2” with returner Robert Downey Jr. and newcomer Scarlett Johansson does what it can within the confines of what it has to do. The Hollywood machine has trained us to have certain expectations for blockbuster sequels and “Iron Man 2” neither deviates nor blazes new territory.

    The first “Iron Man” film, which was released almost exactly two years ago on May 2, 2008, has profitably generated $585 million in worldwide box-office receipts on a production budget of $140 million. That Jon Favreau-directed film earned $98 million in its opening weekend.

    Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2
    Natalie Rushman or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in “Iron Man 2”.
    Image credit: Francois Duhamel

    While Favreau (“Elf”) returns to direct the sequel, Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”; see our Theroux interview on “Iron Man 2” here) interestingly nabs the solo screenplay credit in “Iron Man 2”. The first film was inked by a foursome including Mark Fergus (“Children of Men”), Hawk Ostby (“Children of Men”), Art Marcum (“Punisher: War Zone”) and Matt Holloway (“Punisher: War Zone”).

    “Iron Man 2” again stars Robert Downey Jr. as the title Iron Man character, but Favreau and Paramount Pictures know the No. 1 requirement of follow-up blockbuster film is kicking things up lots of notches on the bedpost.

    That’s the sole reason behind the casting decision of Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson. Beauty and brains aside, “Iron Man 2” decides to primarily flaunt her brawn. Despite that respectable choice, the problem is they forget to actually write her into the story.

    Despite a climactic, “The Matrix”-style fight scene where the character Natalie Rushman (who is doubly known as Natasha Romanoff) kicks some serious ass and takes countless names (while Jon Favreau comically dilly dallies around with a single thug), the entire Johansson sequence is pointless to the central theme of the story. It doesn’t even have a subtheme.

    Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2
    Mysterious Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in “Iron Man 2”.
    Image credit: Francois Duhamel

    Once you stop undressing her with your eyes and come back to reality from the instant gratification of her big “Iron Man 2” moment, you’re anti-climactically left offended that you’ve just enjoyed her otherwise meaningless thematic masturbation.

    On the other hand, while Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer is scripted as a character you love to hate, he again steals the show in a supporting role with his every frame opportunity. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is forgettable while Don Cheadle as Lt. Col. James Rhodes is importantly ingrained into this film such that it wouldn’t be the same without him.

    Gwyneth Paltrow as the critical Pepper Potts gives you just what you’d expect. John Slattery at Howard Stark peeps in with archival footage so the film does what so many other superhero films do: gives Tony Stark his daddy complex.

    Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2
    Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in “Iron Man 2”.
    Image credit: Francois Duhamel

    The obnoxious but entertaining arrogance in Robert Downey Jr.’s character as Tony Stark is especially brought to center stage at a hearing before the government. While the U.S. government thinks the Iron Man armor is a weapon that’s a threat to national security, Stark assures the world he has it under control and has effectively privatized world peace.

    Not so, of course, thanks to the film’s flawless introduction of Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko.

    Rourke is again on fire here following his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Wrestler”. He’s weaved seamlessly into this new story. In a film that’s essentially a repeat of the first but with a new bad guy and new Iron Man armor, Rourke refreshingly plays a sinister, mysterious Russian tech expert with arm extensions like lightning bolts.

    Rourke says he struggled to learn Russian for the role. He worked with a teacher five days a week for three hours a day over the course of three months. Even though Rourke predictably plays the “new bad guy,” he nails it with just the right fear and intrigue a good villain needs to be great.

    The Mark II armor suit in Iron Man 2
    The Mark II armor suit in “Iron Man 2”.
    Image credit: Paramount Pictures/Marvel/ILM

    On the whole, “Iron Man 2” is a mix of strong character performances and weak ones along with perfectly executed story elements and lacking ones. But what’s always most important in a film like this is its overall entertainment value. Aside from the mega paychecks to big-name stars, the other major line item on this film’s balance sheet will always be its special effects.

    There, “Iron Man 2” delivers just the right Hollywood oomph to temporarily satiate your moviegoing senses. Still, unlike the revolutionary elements in films like “The Matrix,” “Iron Man 2” neglects to do anything technologically novel.

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    On the “new scale,” we most appreciate Tony Stark’s “suitcase armor”. When he needs Iron Man in a bind, this small suitcase unravels itself like a scene from “Transformers” and perfectly attaches to his body. If this film delivers to the blockbuster piggy bank, we’ll need more of the revolutionary and less of the evolutionary in its trilogy.

    “Iron Man 2” stars Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany, Leslie Bibb and Garry Shandling from director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux. The film, which was a running time of 124 minutes, opened everyone on May 7, 2010. “Iron Man 2” is rated “PG-13” for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence and some language.

    HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief and publisher Adam Fendelman

    By ADAMFENDELMAN
    Editor-in-Chief/Publisher
    HollywoodChicago.com
    adam@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2010 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com LLC


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    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.0/5.0
    Rating: 3.0/5.0

    CHICAGO– Whew. There is so much going on in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” that you practically need a program to keep up with the players. This mixed bag has overwrought comic book action, head shaking plot points, and the usual Marvel angst that includes some riveting scenes.

    Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) is the writer and director on this chapter, and adds layer upon layer to the copious amount of superheroes. Relying on the insight that the audience is fully invested in the Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow – Whedon piles on some new super faces and a prickly villain named Ultron. The story is comic book epic, but depends on the audience to keep up with it, while throwing in the usual titanic battle sequences. These confrontations are vast in scale, sometimes reducing the heroes to acrobatic CGI cartoon figures. You get everything you pay for when plunking it down for the Avengers, including more than you might possibly want.

    The Avengers – Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) – begin the film by raiding the terrorist group Hydra, where experiments are being done on artificial intelligence, and twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. The power source is in a magic scepter by Thor’s archenemy Loki, and the Avengers confiscate it for Tony Stark’s lab.

    Avengers
    The Gang’s All Here in ‘Avengers, Age of Ultron’
    Photo credit: Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

    This raid opens up the plot of the film, which involves Stark’s use of the scepter to finish his “Ultron” (voice of James Spader) project, a global defense system. Ultron turns rogue, and battles the Avengers at their own headquarters, destroying Stark’s robotics and reclaiming the scepter. Ultron retreats back to Hydra headquarters, builds a army of robots to use against the Avengers, and recruits the twins’ powers of super speed (Pietro) and mind control (Wanda). This establishes the main conflict, and the Avengers are going to need a little help from their friends, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and some newly minted robot and mutant Avengers.

    That plot description just scratches the surface. This is a highly complex story, and favors the ardent fanboy over the casual comic book movie observer. The Marvel comic movies don’t pander to the walk-ins, there needs to be a working knowledge of their hero-and-villain universe to follow much of the action. But even experts might have some issues with the ping-ponging story – there are too many ingredients in the plot stew, and even a momentary mind drift can cause events and relationships to blur.

    The complexity also bleeds into the action sequences. There is the usual high-end spectacle to them, but the tipping point is the computer generated forms of the human Avengers, which are beginning to look like animated ants that flip like Olympic gymnasts from one huge CGI prop to another. It’s a bit unsettling, and reduces the sense of the Marvel Comics characteristic of human angst for the Avenger characters, especially when they go into inevitable battle. The producers didn’t get this team together to talk about their feelings.

    Yet it is that angst also serves the story, and one of the most effective uses of the mind control that Wanda possesses – Elizabeth Olsen is great in the role, by the way – is that she can project the Avengers into illusions of their own fears. Since Captain America is my favorite Avenger, his illusion is 1940s cool, and involves a cameo from Hayley Atwell (TV’s “Agent Carter”) as Cap’s old love interest. These illusions are the energy that distinguishes the Marvel universe, and gives the film a more psychological foundation than just the computer generated battles.

    Elizabeth Olsen
    Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) Does Her Thing in ‘Avengers, Age of Ultron’
    Photo credit: Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

    There is a bigness to everything in this film, that seems to be the prime directive for every director who takes on this particular franchise. Joss Whedon’s contribution – since he also wrote the script – is to amp up everything, turn it up to 11, until the blaring images and story elements blend together in a superhero primal scream. Depending on your level of sensory and comic book perception, the reaction to it will most certainly vary.

    This first film blast means the Summer movie season is upon us, and leave it to the Marvel universe to deliver it like a sonic explosion. Similar to the Avengers in the film, once this assignment is done, audiences across the land will be geared up to take on anything the Summer of 2015 has to offer. Ready, set…boom.

    “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens everywhere on May 1st, in 3D, IMAX and regular screenings. See local listings for 3D and IMAX theaters. Featuring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Rated “PG-13”

    HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

    By PATRICK McDONALD
    Writer, Editorial Coordinator
    HollywoodChicago.com
    pat@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2015 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

    0 0

    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.0/5.0
    Rating: 3.0/5.0

    CHICAGO– “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” is another overstuffed, action packed CGI addled slugfest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. but the effects are exhausting instead of exhilarating. What has set the Avengers apart is the great interplay between the characters – and when the movie stops to take a breath, those relationships shine through.

    But too often Writer Director Joss Whedon’s quiet moments get pushed aside for another increasingly numbing destructive spectacle. 

    Trouble begins right away with The Avengers in mid mission taking down one of the last Hydra baddies. They trade quips like the gang from “Oceans 11,” but the effects surrounding them are just big, loud and ordinary.

    Avengers
    A Group Portrait in ‘Avengers, Age of Ultron’
    Photo credit: Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

    Once they recover Loki’s scepter – which contains one of the building blocks of the Marvel Universe – Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. David Banner (Mark Ruffalo) begin fiddling around with it. Stark, still scarred by the events of the first Avengers film, has a dream of creating artificial intelligence. He wants to create a kind of global shield to protect the earth so The Avengers can go on a permanent vacation. 

    But the resulting creation is Ultron, voiced by an auto-tuned James Spader, has a more homicidal take on the issue. Tony Stark wants to eliminate war, but Ultron’s solution is that no people equals no war, so he sets out to wipe out the human race.  

    Ultron looks kind of cool, but he’s not particularly memorable. Neither are the genetically modified twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) who go from helping Ultron to joining forces against him. In this whole 2 hour, 30 minute blockbuster I don’t recall one single inventive or memorable action set piece. Couple that with an unusually large role for the dullest Avenger of them all, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and you’ve got a blockbuster where I honest to goodness was checking my watch halfway through the film.

    The saving grace are The Avengers themselves. While I had just about reached my limit on Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark after Iron Man 3, he’s back to form here. Some of the pizazz is gone, but he’s still fun to watch. I haven’t cared much for Thor in his stand alone movies, but he works much better as part of a team with others to balance him out.  Amid these huge earth shattering effects, the best moments are the small ones with the team just hanging around and goofing off, trying to lift Thor’s mighty hammer and so on.

    Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson
    Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson Are a Heroic Duo in ‘Avengers, Age of Ultron’
    Photo credit: Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

    The real stars this time around are both Mark Ruffalo’s as David Banner/Hulk, and Chris Evans’ Captain America – they represent the heart and soul of the series. Evans continues to find unlikely depths in the disillusioned unfrozen warrior who could just as easily been the series dumbest character. Ruffalo continues to put in fine work as the best Hulk yet, playing the character like an Alcoholic Anonymous member always wary of a relapse. There’s the seeds of a love story between Banner and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) which is actually kind of sweet, as these two scarred warriors learn to embrace each other, faults and all.         

    I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. The Avengers has not sunk into “Transformers” territory here, not by a long shot. But the plots of these movies are not the most interesting parts of them.  And there’s so much plot and world building, and setups for future films that the most interesting pieces often get shoved to the margins.  This is a blockbuster that’s supposed to go out with a bang, but winds up with only a moderate boom instead.

    “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens everywhere on May 1st, in 3D, IMAX and regular screenings. See local listings for 3D and IMAX theaters. Featuring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Rated “PG-13”

    HollywoodChicago.com contributor Spike Walters

    By SPIKEWALTERS
    Contributor
    HollywoodChicago.com
    spike@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2015 Spike Walters, HollywoodChicago.com

    0 0

    HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
    Rating: 3.5/5.0

    CHICAGO– Summer movies should be fun, and the superhero craze has Marvel Studios combining their adventures with a little joy. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” mostly contains that big high spirit, with Tom Holland portraying the title character with youthful zeal and energy.

    What also makes the film different is that its set in high school, and it is a high school with the awkwardness of that atmosphere, albeit with diverse and good-looking students. The audience comes in shortly after the current Spider-Man had been introduced, in the previous Marvel Studios Avengers film “Captain America: Civil War.” Spidey is a whooping cowboy type as performed by Holland, headstrong and curious on his own. He is challenged in this film by the “Vulture,” a criminal whose basis in larceny is class warfare. That clash is framed by a good old fashioned high school romance, as Spidey’s hormones are also tingling. There is almost too much happening, but director Jon Watts and his team of five screenwriters were able – for the most part – to keep everything on track.

    Youthful Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is coming off his first Avengers mission as Spider-Man, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is advising him to be patient in his role as a superhero. Stark leaves Parker the phone number of his wingman Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) so he can report in, and takes the high schooler back to his Queens, New York, neighborhood and guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

    Spidey1
    Only in New York: Tom Holland in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’
    Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

    But Parker’s energy gets the best of him, and he continues to fight petty crime as the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. Spidey stumbles across an ATM robbery that has unusual weapons, and it turns out to be a gang headed by the Vulture (Michael Keaton), a disgruntled construction boss who stole space alien minerals and created the ultra weapons. Parker and his high school wingman Ned (Jacob Batalon) start investigating, but the case is also complicated by Parker’s crush on Liz (Laura Harrier). Overall it’s best to “look out, here comes the Spider-Man.”

    Bottom line, the film is a balanced adventure between the web-slinging confrontations, and the humor of being a 16 year-old boy with new super powers. Tom Holland is the key to all that, and while he generated excitement in the last Avengers movie, in his solo film he has his star-is-born moments. He takes on the role with the naive confidence that the Spider-Man persona has possessed for years, and does it with good timing and acting – he and Keaton have a moral confrontation that was surprising in its give and take. Holland’s presence as Spider-Man will be exciting for the next several years.

    The supporting cast also is strong in its presence. Jacob Batalon as nerdy Ned is hilarious, and once he finds out his best friend is a superhero, desires to be the “guy in the chair” who directs the action from afar. Michael Keaton is back in another superhero movie as the Vulture, but justifies his villainy with a well-placed prologue about being a small businessman screwed out of his biggest job. Keaton adds his veteran chops to the usual “evil guy,” and truly may be psychotic. The Marvel Universe characters are always welcome, although Robert Downey Jr’s smart-ass Tony Stark act is getting a bit weary.

    Spidey2
    Peter Parker (Holland) and Wingman Ned (Jacob Batalon) in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’
    Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

    There is also a lot of distracting starts and stops in the film, and it could have been slimmed down a bit to make it a leaner story. The problem with superhero movies is that when a production spends a certain amount to create a CGI fight scene, a mere editor can’t come in afterwards and recommend cutting it. And while this Spider-Man film has cool action sequences, when combined with Peter’s high school soap opera is gets a bit choppy and long. And while the Aunt-May-is-hot meme – introduced in the Avengers film – is funny, it’s taken to a bit of a creepy level in “Homecoming,” especially in the way that Marisa Tomei is costumed and made up as Auntie. I guess I am getting old.

    Sneak in your snacks from Walgreens and enjoy this latest Marvel Universe adventure on the big screen. He’s your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, and he’s swinging in along with the sand, fireworks and long days of our endless movie summer.

    “Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens everywhere on July 7th. Featuring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Martin Starr, Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, Donald Glover and Gwyneth Paltrow. Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Directed by Jon Watts. Rated “PG-13”

    HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

    By PATRICK McDONALD
    Writer, Editorial Coordinator
    HollywoodChicago.com
    pat@hollywoodchicago.com

    © 2017 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com