Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Year 7, Day 129 - 5/9/15 - Movie #2,028

BEFORE:  Max von Sydow carries over from "Judge Dredd", and if you're wondering why my chain has taken a turn in THIS direction, as opposed to any other (instead of, for example, following up with Stallone's film "Grudge Match"), it's because at some point I started to take a more holistic approach to the watch list.  About a month ago I tore the list apart for the 17th time (but who's counting?) and tried to develop a chain of linked actors that would thread through ALL of the films left on the list, after setting aside the Halloween films and the Christmas films.  And as far as I can tell, I've mostly succeeded, if I can just stick to the plan and resist the temptation to tear the list apart once again.  But, of course, there are complications:  

1) After tonight's film, there will be 164 films left on the watchlist.  On one hand, this is positive news, because I started the year with 194 films left, so in 4 1/2 months, there's a net gain (loss?) of 30 films.  Not great progress, but it is progress.  On the other hand, this is negative news, because I'm still not down to the level matching where I left off at the end of 2014's viewing year.  In early November when I closed up shop, the watchlist was down to 150.  Maybe I can still get there by the end of May, we'll have to see.  

2) Even though I devised a chain a month ago that would connect all of the remaining films, I've added about two dozen films since then.  Some got worked into the chain very easily, but there are about 7 or 8 new films stuck at the bottom of the list that (so far) have resisted efforts to connect to anything.  Again, I will try to resist the temptation to tear things apart just to work those few films into the mix.  It's like a maze right now, a series of turns, and if I change just one, it changes every turn that needs to be made after that.  

3) Those 164 films left on the list have to fit into 172 viewing slots remaining in 2015.  Sure, the math's still on my side - but that means I can only add 8 more films before the project rolls into 2016.  That won't be easy, as I could probably add 8 more films next week if I were so inclined.  And then once I've got more films on the list than there are slots left in the year, which films get pushed back into Year 8?  Right now I've got a solid list that will get me to the end of May, and a rougher, more tentative list that will get me through my Comic-Con break and to the end of July.  Linking runs out on July 31, at which time I've scheduled a week's worth of documentaries, then another chain could start after that.  

4) I would like very much for the last film of 2015 to be "Star Wars: Episode 7",  because Film #1 was "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", and this symmetry would give me the option of ending the project in a way that satisfies me.  As I mentioned yesterday, I could link there from several different films, but can I link there from a Christmas film in just a few steps?  And why does the new Star Wars film need to be released in December, anyway, when every previous film in the series was released in May?   So, this will require a fair amount of planning.  

So there's a fixed destination for film #2,200, but it's the path to get there that's always shifting.  I'm imagining that it's like trying to land a cargo plane on a very small island, but I'm not sure which islands I need to make drops at first, which is the most efficient order to visit them all in, or how much I need to refuel to get to the end, and to make matters worse, every time I add fuel or jettison some cargo it changes the weight of the plane, thereby changing the physics of bringing the plane down on the runway safely.  Each film I add is like taking on fuel so I can go farther, but each film I watch is like making a cargo drop that makes the plane lighter.  What combination of adding and deleting films is going to bring me in right on target?  It's maddening to not have the definitive answer, just a rough plan.

And what happens if I can end this year the way I want, but I still have 10 or 30 or 100 films left on the list?  That's not really an ending, now, is it?

THE PLOT: The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body. 

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Sessions" (Movie #1,369)

AFTER: Well, this just sort of puts my petty problems into perspective, now doesn't it?  But like Spinal Tap said while standing in front of Elvis' grave, "It's too much.  Too much fucking perspective."  Maybe that's the goal here, to realize that whatever problems you're having, whatever sort of crappy day you might have had, or whatever's making you feel like you're life's not moving forward, it could always be worse.  If you're alive, healthy, moving around and able to enjoy life, you should be counting your blessings - because somewhere there are people unable to do all of those things.  

Or, to put a finer point on it, you've got a limited amount of time to go, see, do, eat and drink all the things you want to experience, so you'd better get working on all that.  Every day above ground is a good one, so try and make the most of it.  As long as you've got your health, you've got no excuses.  

I feel relatively lucky that I've never had to spend the night in a hospital, never had a major bone broken or had an illness that took me out of the game for more than a few days.  Oh, I've had injuries, but nothing that couldn't be handled in the E.R. or on an outpatient basis.  Kidney stones, a head wound, ingrown toenails - things that were quite painful but nothing that required an overnight stay.  Maybe someday something big will strike, you never know.  All the more reason to try and enjoy life and all my faculties while I have them.  

The main character here is seen while recovering from a stroke, and the first 40-45 minutes of the film are seen from his perspective as his doctors, nurses and therapists communicate with him, and he soon realizes that he can't communicate back.  But we're in his head-space, which is both convenient for the purposes of filmmaking, and also presents some unique storytelling challenges.  For starters, when you're paralyzed, the view never changes, unless someone moves into your view or brings you outside for some sun.  And watching yourself get bathed and exercised without feeling it no doubt creates the sensation of being trapped inside your own body.  

Eventually a system is developed for two-way communication, starting with one blink for "Yes" and two for "No", then evolving into a system where someone says the most frequent letters (in the French alphabet) and he blinks once when they've landed on the right letter.  This method takes several minutes to produce a sentence (and forget about playing Scrabble) and for anyone listening to it, including the film's audience, it sounds very repetitive and non-fruitful.  Yet still this man was able to dictate an entire book based on his experience, so really, what excuse do I have for not finishing my screenplay again?

He also feels strong enough to see old friends, and spend some time with his kids, although spending a day at the beach with them can't really work the way it used to.  Hey, the beach sucks anyway - what's so great about getting too much sun and sand in your shoes, sand in your shorts, sand in your food, etc.?  Phone conversations with his father (who, due to his age and ailing health, is sort of a prisoner of another kind) prove to be more problematic - what with that 5-minute delay after a question while a therapist spells out each response via eyeblinks.  

In addition to presenting a unique acting challenge - how much expression can an actor give by only using one eyeball - it's also very easy to take this as a depressing story, but I think that kind of misses the point.  Even though his paralysis gave him a feeling of isolation, symbolized by the diving bell in the title, we see through his fantasies of food and women that he's still very much alive inside.  Though it's little compensation for his condition, through his imagination he can eat anything, go anywhere and romance anyone.  

(ASIDE: The main character here says "Only a fool laughs when nothing's funny."  But the power of humor is an amazing thing - I managed to joke around with a couple of ambulance drivers after an attack of kidney stones forced me to leave the NY Comic-Con, only to have one of them return to the E.R. after seeing my sweat outline on the gurney.  "Hey," he said, "you really were in pain!"  Umm, yeah, that's what I was trying to tell you, in my own way.  Don't let the jokes fool you, pain and I are old friends.  But I figure if I can laugh through the worst situations, things are still going to be relatively OK.)

This is the rare film where flashbacks are not only justified, they're also essential to both keeping the audience entertained, and giving insight to the mind of the main character - not just messing with the timeline to keep people guessing about things.  Without the flashbacks, this would all be an egregious violation of the "Show, don't tell" rule. 

Also starring Mathieu Amalric (last seen in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Anne Consigny, Niels Arestrup, Isaach de Bankolé, Patrick Chesnais, with a cameo from Lenny Kravitz.  

RATING: 4 out of 10 wheelchairs

Friday, May 8, 2015

Judge Dredd

Year 7, Day 128 - 5/8/15 - Movie #2,027

BEFORE: For once, I'm going to watch two versions of the same story back-to-back.  I missed out on chances to watch two versions of "The Great Gatsby" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in a row, so I'm putting the two Judge Dredd adapations together, even though I don't have any direct linking between them.  

I've also got an eye on the cast of the upcoming "Star Wars" film, because if I want to link to it in December, I've got to keep at least one linking option open.  I watched a few films with Harrison Ford in late February and felt another door closing, as it does tonight.  I've still got Oscar Isaacs and Max von Sydow to get me there - von Sydow appears in this film, but he was also in "The Exorcist" and "Interstellar", two films I'd like to see, so I can still use him later on.  In fact I'm going to use "Star Wars: Episode VII" as a link between Domnhall Gleason from "Dredd" and Max von Sydow (last seen in "Never Say Never Again").  I know the new Star Wars doesn't come out until December, but these are my rules, so the linking counts.  

(Alternately, Karl Urban from "Dredd" was also in "RED" with James Remar.)

THE PLOT: In a dystopian future, Joseph Dredd, the most famous Judge is convicted for a crime he did not commit while his murderous counterpart escapes.

AFTER: I was all prepared to give this film the benefit of the doubt - surely it can't be as bad as its reputation suggests, can it?  Maybe it's just one of those comic-book films that had the misfortune of being released before "X-Men" made comic book films cool.  It can't be any worse than the 2013 Dredd reboot, can it?  Well, it turns out that it can.  

I was not able to finish this film in one go, I fell asleep, which is always a bad sign, and I had to finish today after work. with the aid of a large iced mocha coffee.  Sometimes my body just rejects a film and decides that spending the next two hours sleeping is a much better idea - in this case, I'm inclined to agree.  And if I have to go to Wikipedia or IMDB to find out the plot of the film I just watched, that's another warning sign. 

Again, it's the same twisted logic, or lack thereof.  The Earth is a vast wasteland, except for this city over here, which seems to be doing relatively OK.  And the Judges, an elite fighting force, are in control of things, except for the people who still want to do evil things.  The villain manages to take out like 100 of them in 48 hours, so how much of an elite force were they to begin with?  

It gets worse - the Judges are supposed to act as juries and executioners in the field, but when Judge Dredd is frames, why is he put on trial?  Wait, you just said there were no trials any more, so why is there even a courtroom to have a trial in?  And the penalty for most crimes of this nature is death, umm, except for in this one case.  Jeez, why are there even prisons any more, if people are always executed on the spot?  For that matter, WHERE are there prisons any more?  You just said the world was a vast wasteland...

Ugh, I can't even.  These aren't even Nitpick Points, they're basic, fundamental problems embedded deep within the story of the film.  Stop giving me "facts" about the way the world works, if your own story rejects those facts at every turn!

That's it, I'm getting off the comic-book/sci-fi track, and not a moment too soon.  I'll try to swing back this way again before Comic-Con, but I really need a change of pace. 

Also starring Sylvester Stallone (last seen in "Klute"), Armand Assante (last seen in "Private Benjamin"), Rob Schneider (last seen in "Big Daddy"), Jurgen Prochnow, Diane Lane (last seen in "Must Love Dogs"), Joan Chen (last seen in "Autumn in New York"), Balthazar Getty (last seen in "Natural Born Killers"), Scott Wilson, Joanna Miles, Angus MacInnes (last seen in "Captain Phillips"), Ewen Bremner (last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"), with cameos from James Remar and the voices of Adrienne Barbeau, James Earl Jones (last seen in "Conan the Barbarian" - great, 2 more "Star Wars" connections!)

RATING: 2 out of 10 sky-cycles

Thursday, May 7, 2015


Year 7, Day 127 - 5/7/15 - Movie #2,026

BEFORE: It's not just another sci-fi film with a last name for a title, Karl Urban also carries over from "Riddick".  As long as I'm dealing with comic-book heroes this week, might as well take advantage of the linking and work this one in.  Tomorrow's film will therefore be both obvious and difficult to link to.

THE PLOT: In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

AFTER:  A lot of times, a screenwriter wants to have things both ways - like having a character (essentially) say, "I can't possibly even consider a relationship right now, for reasons X, Y and Z.  Don't even go there.  Wanna make out?"  Or depicting a planet that is desolate, deserted, no signs of life.  Except for all of the animals and the bounty hunter waystation that's just over the ridge. 

"Dredd" is nothing but 2-way contradictions in its premise.  It's set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as long as you don't count the 80 million people living in the greater metropolitan Bos-Wash area.  Yeah, that's a Mega City that covers half of the East Coast, so I wonder if the writer ever took the time to look up the definition of "post-apocalyptic".  Jeez, for an irradiated wasteland, things aren't looking all that bad - I mean, somebody had the resources to build 200-story buildings, so things must have been OK at some point, right?  Next we're supposed to believe that criminals and gangs are thriving, and civilians are all afraid of the streets - except we're shown hundreds of them walking around, and they don't look all that fearful to me.  

And the Judges, like Judge Dredd, are the only thing fighting back, the last line of defense in a corrupt world.  And you can count on them 100%.  Umm, except for the corrupt ones.  And even at their best, they can only respond to 6% of the crimes reported.  And their jurisdiction only extends so far, so I guess even with their help, humanity's in more trouble than it realizes.  

OK, so someone projected their thoughts about the present, to calculate the future, I've seen it happen again and again.  But that's always a losing game - who could have foreseen the things in our present, like Twitter and ISIS and the fights over gay marriage?  It's like someone took a walk around Detroit and said, "Hey, imagine the whole world looking like this..." without really parsing it out.  I mean, the majority of our country consists of beautiful rolling hills or grassy farmlands, but apparently hardly anybody wants to live there.  Why stay in Detroit after you've gotten a glimpse of, say, Wyoming or Montana?  Because they may be beautiful, but I'm betting they're also boring as hell.  

A story where most of the crime is drug-related also seems a little outdated for 2013.  With pot legal in some states, why not just take a vacation there, get a little natural herbal entertainment, instead of those synthetic chemicals shot up into your veins?  The drug of choice in the future is SLO-MO, which slows you all down, presumably so you can enjoy the effects longer, plus it gives its users the euphoria associated with being in a much better sci-fi movie, like that one "Matrix" film that was pretty neat.  Remember when everything slowed into "bullet time"?  Yeah, that was cool.  But here comes a NITPICK POINT: for drugs to make everything else seem slower, they'd have to speed your metabolism way up, right?  But that's not what we're shown here - so I guess someone figured out drugs that work the opposite way, or else again, the screenwriter just forgot to research the way things work.

The story here is very simple - veteran cop takes a rookie cop out on patrol on her first day.  And instead of dealing with the big picture, they take on the small picture, just one building out of hundreds, meant to be representative of the problems of Mega City, I guess.  But it almost seems too small and too short, I didn't get any feeling of grandness out of it, or a sense that these judges are making a difference in the world.  

There's been a disturbing trend in the world of special effects in the last few years, and that's the practice of "showing off" by depicting collapsing buildings - somebody figured out the mathematics of it all, and used that to great extent in films like "Man of Steel" and both "Avengers" films.  This could be a sad remnant of the collective unconscious after 9/11 - that image got burned into all of our brains, and filmmakers have been churning it back out at us, even if they're not aware that's what they're doing.  I'm sure there are dozens more films that have used this technique, like "Cloverfield", "2012" and probably that recent "Godzilla" film - eventually the FX guys will discover something new, but I wish they'd find a way to stop this sooner.  "Dredd" is one of the rare films that doesn't exploit this effect, but I'm guessing it's probably more of a cost-cutting measure than any respect for a national tragedy. 

Another quibble is that with several characters wearing the same outfits, and also helmets that cover most of their faces, it was very difficult for me to tell who was who at certain times.  In a firefight, a viewer really needs to know who to root for - and did our hero just take a hit, or was that another guy dressed exactly like him?  

Also starring Lena Headey (last seen in "The Remains of the Day"), Olivia Thirlby (last seen in "No Strings Attached"), Rakie Ayola, Wood Harris, Domnhall Gleason (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), Jason Cope.

RATING: 3 out of 10 blast shields

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Year 7, Day 126 - 5/6/15 - Movie #2,025

BEFORE: Movie-wise, it's been a great week so far.  Boy, I sure would hate to be the director of the film that has to follow "Avengers: Age of Ultron" AND "Guardians of the Galaxy"...

Vin Diesel (not his real name, I mean, come ON!) and Dave Bautista carry over from "Guardians of the Galaxy".

THE PLOT:  Left for dead on a sun-scorched planet, Riddick finds himself up against an alien race of predators. Activating an emergency beacon alerts two ships: one carrying a new breed of mercenary, the other captained by a man from Riddick's past.

 FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Chronicles of Riddick" (Movie #1,469)

AFTER: I'm going to take a minute and go read my reviews of the last 2 "Riddick" films, just so I can remember where I left off.  Ah, that's right, Riddick fought the Necromongers in the last film, which may or may not have been set before "Pitch Black", I really couldn't tell.  Does it even matter?  That film left some lingering questions, not the least of which was, "What the hell are Vin Diesel and Judi Dench doing in the same film?"  But it seems like that film ended with Riddick occupying the throne in charge of, umm, something.  

Here it seems like they're trying to get the character back to his roots, as seen in "Pitch Black", where he can be trying to survive on a hostile planet, and then killing a bunch of people who deserve it.  So, here's the plot of "Riddick": Riddick has to survive on a hostile planet, and then kill a bunch of people who deserve it.  There, doesn't that feel much better?  All's right with the world, a world which includes alien dogs, acid rain and "Alien"-looking creatures that will lure you to their waterholes and then eat you for lunch.  

So it seems like Riddick got double-crossed by the Necromongers, or someone else - does it even matter? - and then left to die on a hostile world.  Really, there's not much difference between a film with a guy stuck on an alien world and a guy stranded on an island, like "Six Days, Seven Nights", or a life-raft, like "All Is Lost".  Hmm, I think I just spotted one of my running themes for 2015!  

The film is sort of neatly divided into two parts, the first being nearly without dialogue, as Riddick figures out his surroundings and the best ways to deal with vicious predators - most of the time this means killing them, but if something looks like a dog, the natural inclination is to turn it into a pet.  A pet that he tests out alien venom on, to use as an anesthetic - I suppose that counts as showing Riddick's softer side.  All this allows him to eventually get to an outpost, where he can activate a beacon, and call some bounty hunters for a ride.  

You see, here's the thing about space - it's big.  Really, really big.  Mind-numbingly huge.  The chances of finding a lost planet are probably worse than finding a needle in a haystack - it's more like finding a needle in a field full of haystacks, without the aid of a magnet or a pitchfork.  We can assume that someday there will be star-charts, but still - those planets are always moving around in their orbits, so a planet (or even a star) is never exactly where you left it.  Someone's going to have to figure out how to factor all this in to get spaceships from place to place, but it's going to have to be someone smarter than me.  

So that's where the homing beacon comes in, makes sense.  After that, it's a battle of wits between Riddick and the two groups of hunters that show up.  Riddick goes back into the Wolverine/James Bond mode, using all his tools and skills to take down his enemies and get off the planet.  You can probably guess how it all shakes down. 

Also starring Katee Sackhoff, Karl Urban (last seen in "The Chronicles of Riddick"), Jordi Molla (last seen in "The Alamo"), Matt Nable, Bokeem Woodbine (last seen in "Total Recall"), Keri Hilson.

RATING: 4 out of 10 power nodes

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy

Year 7, Day 125 - 5/5/15 - Movie #2,024

BEFORE:  OK, so I admit I'm a little late in getting to this one.  It was out in theaters late last summer, and I reviewed all my superhero movies for the year just before Comic-Con, so it was tough for me to circle back and pick this one up.  Then I got the Blu-Ray for Christmas, but still couldn't find a way to link directly to it.  Why do the Marvel movies keep screwing up my timeline?  I guess because I want to see most of them as soon as I can, and it's not always possible for me to do so.

Stan Lee carries over from his cameo in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" - sure, I could have watched this film right after "Her" because Chris Pratt would have carried over, and then I would have maintained the proper viewing order for watching the Marvel films, but then I wouldn't have the links I need for tomorrow's film - so my reasoning will be clear tomorrow when I follow up with another sci-fi film.
(OK, OK, I admit it - I really watched this one BEFORE "Avengers: Age of Ultron", because story-wise that's where it goes in the MCU, but I'm reviewing it AFTER to preserve the linking to tomorrow's film.  What was I supposed to do for two days, NOT watch a movie?)

THE PLOT:  A group of intergalactic criminals are forced to work together to stop a fanatical warrior from taking control of the universe.

AFTER: If you're a Marvel comic-book fan, you may appreciate my take on the Guardians of the Galaxy, but if not, I'm about to make your world a lot more complicated.  There are actually many different comic-book realities (Marvel's currently in the midst of destroying most of them, however) and the one most comic readers are familiar with is called Earth-616.  (No one seems to know why, but I'm betting someone's birthday is on June 16.)  The Marvel cinematic universe, the one where the Avengers films and also this one takes place, is called Earth-199999 (again, not sure why that number).  So this gives filmmakers creative license to borrow liberally from the comic book stories, but they are not obligated to follow them exactly, because in the end movies work differently from comic books.  But I bet when Marvel puts their comic-book universe back together (give them 6 months or so...), it's going to look a lot like the one we've seen in the movies.

Now in the Marvel Comics, there used to be a group called the Guardians of the Galaxy, and they were future soldiers, each from different planets, who occasionally came back in time 1,000 years to visit the Avengers, or help them deal with cosmic-level threats like Korvac or Thanos or Kang.  The members of the group were Vance Astro (from Earth's past, umm, present - well, it's complicated), Charlie-27 (from Jupiter), Martinex (from Pluto), Nikki (from Mercury) Starhawk (from ???), and Yondu Udonta (from Centauri-IV).  Now, these characters are NOT the Guardians in this film - except for one, apparently.  But these Guardians had a successful comic book series for years, set in the 31st century, with various heroes and villains that were often descendants of (or riffs on) Marvel's 20th century characters.

In 2008, Marvel introduced a second team calling itself the Guardians of the Galaxy (although, chronologically I guess they're the first team - and who's to say their stories didn't inspire the second one that appeared first?) It's this second (umm, first) team that appears in this film, just the 5 core members, although in the comic book they've had minor characters like Quasar and Adam Warlock on the team, and even major characters like Captain Marvel, Venom and Iron Man have joined them for short stints.  But for their introduction to the cinematic universe, they're stripped down to just Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and Groot.  (Yondu is sort of a supporting member, who's to say he doesn't live for 1,000 years and later form the 31st century version of the team?)

But many reviewers referred to the Guardians' comic book as "B-level" or "minorly successful", and I don't think that's true at all.  The first series ran for over five years, and the second one did well for three years and many crossovers.  Once this movie was successful, there were at least THREE Guardians series on the shelves at one time - their self-titled book, plus "Guardians Team-Up" and "Guardians 3000".  

But let's get to the movie, which has three cosmic villains working together - Thanos, Ronan the Accuser, and Nebula, while in the comic books the Guardians would probably face them one at a time.  Also, since Thanos is an Eternal and Ronan is a Kree, they probably would never have the same goals.  And Nebula would be just as likely to work against Thanos than with him, since she claims to be his granddaughter (from the future?), and he has no memory of fathering a child, at least not intentionally.

Thanos, by the way, is usually depicted in the Marvel Comics trying to acquire the Infinity Gems, and usually when he gathers all 6 of them (each one controls either time, space, reality, mind, soul or power) he wears them on a big glove called the Infinity Gauntlet, and has infinite power.  Based on everything I've seen in the Marvel films lately, we're gearing up for something big along these lines - the next 2 Avengers films are subtitled "The Infinity War", parts 1 and 2.  Anyone who's recently been to that Marvel Movie Marathon, or has the time to watch all the films in release order can really get ahead of the game here if they pay close attention.

Now, this Guardians film works rather well, I won't say it's the best Marvel film, as some have said, but it does have a lot of action, a fair amount of comic moments, some good retro music tracks, and a number of special effects unlike any I've seen before.  Plus it's part comic-book film, part sci-fi, part prison film, part treasure quest and part buddy film - what's not to like about all that?  Star-Lord is part Han Solo, part Indiana Jones, and part Bo Duke (the way he slides over the spaceship before getting in) yet he also feels like a very fresh original character.

But the problem here is that the Marvel films are starting to hem close to the same formulas, as when two superheroes meet for the first time and usually fight each other, because they don't know at first that they're on the same side.  That's like the whole first half of this film.  And the second half isn't just in the style of the first "Avengers" film, it practically IS the first "Avengers" film, all over again.  In both films teams are formed, the members have to work out the best way to use their powers toward a common goal, and both teams have a leader with moves (Captain America/Star-Lord), a tech & weapons expert (Iron Man/Rocket Raccoon), a hot female spy with better moves (Black Widow/Gamora), a strong man who's a bit dim (Thor/Drax), and a bigger, stronger guy who can barely form sentences (Hulk/Groot).  Let's see, who's missing - Hawkeye?  Well, if you add Yondu into the mix (since he is a member in the comics) whaddaya know, he shoots arrows too.  Tell me I'm not the only person who noticed this.  

OK, so it's not a perfect match-up - for starters the Guardians are mostly criminals, while the Avengers are not.  But when the Guardians were fighting Ronan and his mace, I thought of Loki and his staff, and as the Nova Corps were trying to prevent Ronan's ship from landing on Xandar, it reminded me a LOT of the Avengers trying to keep the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier from crashing to Earth.  In many ways, it's the same damn movie.

Also starring Chris Pratt (last seen in "Her"), Zoe Saldana (last seen in "The Words"), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace (last seen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), Michael Rooker (last seen in "Cliffhanger"), Djimon Hounsou (last seen in "The Island"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "We're No Angels"), Glenn Close (last seen in "The Paper"), Benicio Del Toro (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World"), Karen Gillan, and the voices of Bradley Cooper (last seen in "American Hustle"), Vin Diesel (last seen in "The Chronicles of Riddick"), Josh Brolin (last heard in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), with cameos from Gregg Henry, Tom Proctor, Lloyd Kaufman, and the voices of Seth Green (last seen in "Can't Hardly Wait"), Nathan Fillion (last heard in "Monsters University"), Rob Zombie.

RATING: 8 out of 10 yellow jumpsuits

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Year 7, Day 125 - 5/5/15 - Movie #2,023

BEFORE: I'm back, after taking a day off to study Star Wars trivia and then Star Wars Day itself.  There are no other hardcore Star Wars fans on my usual trivia team, but that's part of what allows us to succeed, we have experts in different types of trivia.  We have a music guy, a politics guy, we used to have a literature gal, we've got a TV guy - you get the idea.  The less overlap between our areas of expertise, the better we should do (theoretically), and if there's a dispute over a TV show answer, you go with the TV show expert's opinion.  My knowledge extends into a number of different subjects, but I'm primarily the movie trivia guy, plus a lot of general pop culture stuff, like you see on "Jeopardy!".  Anyway I was there alone, but got an invite to join another team, so I rolled with that, because what fun is playing if you're not interacting with others - and although they didn't really need me, I'd like to think I was of some help to them, and that team finished with the most points, but came in second in the decisive buzzer-round. 

In retrospect, I could have sandwiched in another Scarlet Johansson film, like "Lucy", which is available on PPV, but I don't like paying $5 for a movie when I'm already paying for premium cable.  I'm sure I'll get to that in a few months, anyway.  But ScarJo carries over from "Her", as was my original (but poorly-timed) intent.   It's been a challenge in the last week, avoiding spoilers for today's film, but I've kept a finger on the fast-forward button every time an "Avengers" actor has appeared on a talk-show, and I skipped the Entertainment Weekly review - even after all that, I feel I probably know too much about this film already, just by osmosis.

I was debating the other day whether everything happens for a reason, and if being under-employed at the moment means I get to see "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on a Tuesday afternoon, with only 5 other people in the theater, it's hard to argue with that notion.  But in debating whether or not to see it in 3-D and/or IMAX, I asked the ticket-seller the difference in price between regular 2-D and fancy 3-D, and she started quoting me the IMAX price.  "But that's not what I asked you," I said.  And while I admire your attempt to up-sell me, please answer only the question I asked, or I will find another theater.  It took her so long to come up with the answer, I said, "Screw it, give me one ticket for regular, non-3-D, non-IMAX."  Because at some point you lose the right to my extra 4 or 6 dollars or whatever it is.  

THE PLOT:  When Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it's up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

FOLLOW-UP TO:  "The Avengers" (2012) (Movie #1,144), "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (Movie #1,800), "Iron Man 3" (Movie #1,489)

AFTER: My first reaction to seeing this film is, "Holy Freakin' Sh*t"!  Which is much like my reaction to the first "Avengers" film.  When I think of how many years I read comic books, which at their best are just still pictures, and how I wished they could move and I could see the action unfolding in real time.  Well, we're living in that kid's future, because making the Avengers move and fight and blow things up is right there on the screen, and it may have taken 30 years or so, but damn, I got my wish to come true.  Watch Hulk crash through a tank like it's made of paper!  Watch Hawkeye launch an explosive arrow at a bunker, and a second later, it blows up!  Watch Captain America throw his shield, take out 5 HYDRA soldiers, and have the shield bounce back right into his hand!  It all instills in me a sense of wonder and amazement, and I hope I never lose that, or take it for granted. 

You know I'm due to start hating (OK, not hating, but at least nitpicking) any minute now, but I had to first get the admiration and appreciation out of the way.  Sure, I'll find fault, but I love the overall attempt - I love that Marvel movies swing for the fences, and if they only get 80% of the way there, I've come to accept that.  It's kind of like an inside-the-park home run - it didn't clear the wall, but it still scores for the team.  Could it have been better?  Sure, things can always be better, but let's first appreciate what got accomplished here.  

Now, Ultron goes way back in the Avengers history - NOTE: Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the same as the Marvel Comic-Book Universe, this has been established already.  I can complain all I want that the MCU is very different from the MCBU I grew up with, but it won't matter.  Anyway the big trend now is destroying continuity in order to re-build it, (see: Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Men) and make it fresh for today's young audiences.  More on this later.  But Ultron (in the comics) was a robot designed by Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man, aka Giant-Man, aka Yellowjacket) with the capacity for self-improvement.  Oh, and evil.  He was always rebuilding and replacing himself with Ultron Mark V or Ultron Mark VI, he'd be drawn a little differently, but always trying to kill the Avengers, maybe to impress his "father"?  He was a robot with daddy issues (and mommy ones, too, given how many times he kidnapped the Wasp.).

The film changes his story, but preserves what's best (worst?) about Ultron - the fact that he's a robot dictator, like a Robo-Hitler, with a vision for the world that includes eliminating the people he doesn't like.  For Ultron, that's just about everybody, starting with the Avengers who accidentally created him.  Here Tony Stark, still shaken up by the alien invasion of New York (we got a bit inside his head in "Iron Man 3") creates a bunch of Iron Man-like robots to help with crowd control during Avengers battles.  Always thinking about ways to improve things with artificial intelligence (like the J.A.R.V.I.S. program), he (presumably) wants to protect the earth with A.I. Avengers, so the human ones can have a bit of a break, and designs the ULTimate RObot Nanny (my acronym) - what could possibly go wrong?  

Well, a lot, as any comic-book fan can predict.  Ultron gains sentience before Stark and Banner have the chance to program him to not be evil, so he takes control of the Iron Legion, and gets to work on the systematic process of taking over the world, rebuilding himself and killing the Avengers, not necessarily in that order.  His first recruits are Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver - not the ones from the MCBU, which used to be Magneto's children, and not the Quicksilver seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past", who was from a timeline that may no longer exist in a different movie universe, and who the director of "Avengers: Age of Ultron" hopes you don't ask too many questions about.  

(ASIDE: Get your house in order, Marvel!  Is Quicksilver an Avenger or an X-Man?  Was he born in the 1960's, or the 1990's?  Is he American or European?  Is he Magneto's son, or not?  The comic-book fans want to know, but his history in books and movies is now WAY too complicated to untangle.  I picture the top brass at Marvel sticking their fingers in their collective ears and shouting, "Naa Naa Naah, I'm not listening, I can't HEAR you!")

As for Scarlet Witch, who in the comic-books has Reality-shaping powers (akin to witchcraft, but not really, cause Wiccan is so 1990's), here she works completely differently, with psychic powers, because that's what the plot dictates she has.  On the plus side, this gives us a chance to see the secret fears and doubts of our heroes, exposing their very vulnerable (super)-human faults.  Hits 'em right in their very soft brain matter, and tears the team apart.  (Another plus, this perfectly sets up the next Captain America film "Civil War", where Cap fights Iron Man, and all the heroes have to ally with one or the other.)

The one thing that's constant about the Avengers is change - Back in the early 1960's, they only went a few issues before Hulk left the line-up, and then it was only another year or so before Ant-Man, Wasp and Iron Man took a break, and Capt. America rebuilt the team with Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (all former MBCU villains).  Over the years everyone from Spider-Man to Wolverine to Storm to Mr. Fantastic has been an Avenger, some for very short periods of time before the next shake-up when the next writer wants to play with a different set of blocks.  That's clearly where the MCU is headed too, a number of heroes get to take a break after this one, but new Avengers step up to take their places.  

My biggest complaint about the state of Marvel Comics (and I hold some shares of Disney stock, so really, I'm like their boss in a way, and they should really start listening to me...) is that right now, when the big blockbuster Avengers film is hitting theaters, Marvel's tearing their universe apart for a big summer crossover called "Secret Wars".  Essentially the universe and everything in it gets destroyed, except for the super-heroes, forced to fight on a Battleworld comprised of pieces of real estate from other universes, other realities.  But as much as you might like to see 14 Thors from different timelines battling each other, here's the down-side: nearly every Marvel book is getting cancelled for the duration of the event.  I'm sure they'll be back in a few months, re-launching with new collectable #1 issues, but for any kids who see this movie and want to go to a comic-book shop and buy the new Avengers comic, bad news, kid, there isn't one.  But here, try this crossover comic that requires you be familiar with not just one continuity timeline, but also 13 others.  This is NOT the way to get young kids interested in Marvel Comics.  Couldn't they have postponed the Secret Wars for a few months, so there'd be a proper tie-in?  I guess they did have an Avengers one-shot with the MCU Avengers, but that's not much.  But hey, print is dead, right?  Do we even need to make comic books on paper anymore, now that we have them on celluloid?  Umm, I mean digital film.  When a Marvel movie makes a trillion dollars, I'm guessing the comics are now just loss leaders.  

(Another ASIDE: I got to see a few trailers before this film, like "Pixels", "Terminator Genisys",  "Tomorrowland", "Jurassic World", and "Fantastic Four".  Much more complaining is in store for Marvel regarding the Fantastic Four, like how they're not going to support that film with a comic-book either, but after seeing the trailer, I'm much more intrigued for the new FF film.  I may even go and see it.  Same goes for "Ant-Man", which looks a lot better than I expected.  And now I think I'm going to have to see "Jurassic World" first-run also, because dinosaurs.)

But let's get back to "Age of Ultron" (which, by the way, was a completely different storyline in the comics, where Ultron took over the world, and Avengers had to go back in time and kill Hank Pym so he wouldn't build the robot in the first place.  Damn, I can't help it!  What's wrong with me?  And why can't the movies just stick to the scripts I'm already familiar with?)  This Ultron keeps trying to decode the nuclear launch codes to kill all humanity, and when that doesn't work, he tries to build himself the ultimate synthetic body, and when THAT doesn't work, he comes up with another plan, which doesn't seem to make sense at all, until eventually it does.  

The Avengers go global in this one, with action taking place in Korea, South Africa, and some fictional Eastern European country.  Probably good for them if they get out of NYC once in a while, assuming they're even welcome back there at all after what went down in the first film.  

Oh, if only the Avengers could face down their darkest fears, and re-unite as a team and get back to putting their lives on the line to save the world.  But, really, what are the chances of THAT happening?  (Hee-hee, see what I did there?  I made you think that wasn't going to happen...)  Actually, the heroes are sort of portrayed as losers here, the messed-up kind with real fears and neuroses, and (mostly) messed-up relationships.  The romance that does develop is rather surprising, as I've never seen anything in the comics between these two people, but (apparently) it makes an odd bit of sense in the MCU.  I would have bet on Black Widow and Captain America (the whole Perestroika thing) or even Black Widow and Hawkeye (which happened in the comics, but here there's a valid reason they're only besties.)

In the end I'm glad I followed up "Her" with this film, because the theme of artificial intelligence carried over.  When does a robot or a computer consciousness count as "alive"?  Did the voice in "Her" have feelings, or was it all simulated?  And if you try to create a new lifeform without human concepts like "good" and "evil", do you set yourself up for failure?  Will a robot default to a very logical view of how the world will be better without humans?  Or did Tony Stark just forget to fall back on Asimov's laws of robotics, which you gotta admit, seems like a real rookie mistake?  

I was all set to have the same NITPICK POINT as I did with "Her", because in every promotional clip I saw for this film, Ultron just sounded much too human.  Sure, you want to hire James Spader because he's got a great voice, and if his expression doesn't carry over, then what's the point?  But in the movie theater, Ultron sounded much more like James Spader sealed into a tin can, which was much better.  But the N.P. is still there, in slightly altered form - namely that Ultron used too much slang, spoke with very human words like "Yeah" instead of "Yes".  If he had spoken more formally, he could have been a lot creepier - plus I think it would have been more accurate.  If the robot can download gigabytes of data in seconds, you'd think there would be a guide to proper grammar in there somewhere, and if he really thinks he's better than humans, he should sound more like a Shakespearean villain, egotistical and above it all.  

Also starring Robert Downey, Jr. (last seen in "Iron Man 3"), Chris Evans (last seen in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), Chris Hemsworth (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World"), Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "Now You See Me"), Jeremy Renner (last seen in "The Bourne Legacy"), the voice of James Spader (last seen in "Sex, Lies, and Videotape"), Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "Django Unchained"), Don Cheadle (last seen in "Flight"), Anthony Mackie (last seen in "8 Mile"), Paul Bettany (last heard in "Iron Man 3"), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (last seen in "Kick-Ass 2"), Elizabeth Olsen (last seen in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), Cobie Smulders (ditto), Linda Cardellini (last seen in "Brokeback Mountain"), Claudia Kim, Thomas Krestchmann, Andy Serkis, with cameos from Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba (last seen in "Pacific Rim"), Stellan Skarsgard (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World"), Julie Delpy, Stan Lee, and the voice of Josh Brolin (last seen in "Gangster Squad").

RATING: 8 out of 10 collapsing buildings