Saturday, May 2, 2015

Movie Review of "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

The long-awaited Avengers sequel has finally hit and like any sequel, there are good points and bad points. This phase in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) finds the team going directly into action to face off against HYDRA and Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) to obtain the scepter previously used by Loki, obtaining the wisdom infinity stone. The audience is not given any review or catching up on what our heroes have been up to lately. So let's review what we know so far: Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have been on missions together and seen the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was infiltrated and corrupted by its enemy HYDRA; Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who, somewhere between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and here, got into a romantic relationship with Black Widow, went off to work at Stark Industries, alongside Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.); after a major battle with Aldrich Killian, who tried to further weaponize the "Extremis" technology, Stark seemingly gives up his Iron Man persona to be with an ailing Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) has been laying low; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) saved his world, Asgard, and Earth from the evil Malekith, with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) posing as their father, Odin, and two Asgardians deliver an Infinity Stone (featured in Guardians of the Galaxy) to the Collector (Benecio del Toro), which, thanks to the Guardians, is currently in the custody of the NOVA Corps. Otherwise, the audience is just thrown into the action. What follows is a fun, action-packed beginning to the summer movie season!

 The newest addition to the MCU is the addition of the "miracles" (they're mutants -- let's be real), "the Twins," Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have powers beyond a scientific explanation; Wanda has telekinesis, hypnosis, and can emit powerful energy bolts, and Pietro is a super-fast speedster. We find out the two are not the victims they were made out to be in their brief appearance of the post-credit scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As Wanda uses her powers to hypnotize Tony Stark, he sees his worst nightmare of his teammates dying while Earth is faced with another alien invasion. This fear spreads within him and he decides to turn his sentient Iron Man soldiers (oh yeah! They were made too in the interim between films!) into more aware artificial intelligence (AI). The problem is that his AI -- named Ultron -- becomes all too self-aware and decides the only way it can bring about Tony's "world peace" is by destroying those who make the world the most violent: humans. Thus, the Avengers spring into action and it's an entertaining ride to watch.

"There are no strings on me." Ultron first meets the Avengers and makes a rather underrated, sinister threat.

One of the best things about the villain of Ultron is that he is a broad-based villain. Everywhere there is computer AI and the internet, he lives. Plus, he makes several copies of himself, making an innumerable threat. But that is also a problem in Age of Ultron, because, for a villain who seems so much of a huge threat and is capable of being one, the filmmakers don't fully utilize his power of coursing through the world's internet and it is never explained why (I can't say too much now as it would become too much of a spoiler). Sure, there's a brief mention of NEXUS, but how Ultron is prevented from fully using his power is never explained. Of course, in the comic, Ultron is actually created by Hank Pym -- who will be played by Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man film due out this summer -- but, in this film, it is understandable that director/writer Joss Whedon had to keep it in the already-established characters' world. The other best thing about Ultron is he is voiced by James Spader. Spader brings a delightful playfulness to his villainy, his voice oozing with delighted evil (fans of NBC's The Blacklist know what I'm talkin' about!). Ultron is probably one of the best robotic characters I've ever seen on film. Since Ultron is created by Stark in the film, it is understandable that the robot would take on Stark's wit and pompousness. I think he's even better of a villain than Loki. Taylor-Johnson is good as Quicksilver but -- because I'm a DC Comics fan, I have to say -- that character is no Flash. Olsen really brings "the dark" as Scarlet Witch and I can't wait to see how the MCU fits her in to its world. And Paul Bettany's Vision was interesting, I liked the way Bettany portrayed him as well as how he was written, and there was one jaw-dropping moment which Vision silently shows his full strength ... and it's not even in an action sequence! I look forward to seeing how he'll affect the overall function of the Avengers as a whole.

Some of the best parts of this film are some of the small quirks peppered throughout the film; my personal favorite is when all of the Avengers are humorously trying to lift Thor's hammer and Cap -- an insanely buff Evans -- slightly nudges it, and Thor gets a worried look on his face but quickly plays it off like he wasn't worried. Also worth mentioning is the introduction of Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) in Africa -- this is a brief intro to the world of Black Panther (who will be introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and have his own film come out in July 2018). Plus, this has to be my favorite Stan Lee cameo of all the ones he's done so far ("Excelsior!"). What I also liked about the film was the further development of Hawkeye's (Renner) character, and Thor's little side mission where he sees a major foreshadowing. I've said this since The Avengers and I'll say it again: Black Widow should have her own stand-alone film; she has one of the best origin stories in the Marvel universe. There is also definite seeds being planted to foreshadow the famous "Civil War" event storyline (from the comics), which will be the centerpiece to the next Captain America movie (due out in May 2016), most notably the fight between Cap and Stark. I love that this film explored the duality between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Stark is so intent on wanting to protect the world that he creates destructive devices to do so (sounds like most real-life "politicos" nowadays) -- an idea which is one of the Maximoffs' main reasons for not trusting Stark -- while Rogers believes in overall freedom. I couldn't help but think of Rogers' most quotable line in any of the films he's appeared in when he confronts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Winter Soldier, by pointing to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new weapons and saying: "... Like holding a gun on everyone on Earth and calling it protection. This isn't freedom. This is fear." This will play out more in Civil War. Now, some people may think this film follows the same formula of the first, especially involving the "dysfunctional family" feel. However, this aspect is necessary in this film so that Marvel could set it up for what's to inevitably come. 

A house divided ...

What I wasn't too crazy about was some of Cap's action stunts. I know this is a comic book adaptation movie, but there's still only so much unrealistic action moves I can stomach, and his were too much to bear. Also, Marvel's continuing utilization of the entire "coincidence catastrophe" technique is good in theory. Let me explain. You might notice in every Marvel film that when any major disaster happens in a city or place, miraculously no major lives, cities, and/or places are destroyed (although, in this film, there is plenty of destruction, and I'd like to see what Man of Steel naysayers who were so up-in-arms about the destruction of Metropolis would say after seeing this -- even though I'm sure they'll make excuses). Anyways, like I said, this technique is good in theory in that kids don't see much death and it makes the story all the more optimistic, but it sort of gets old. It gets to be too unrealistic ... even for a film steeped in science fiction and flying men. But it still works nonetheless ... for now.

Overall, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a great way to start the season, another exceptional notch in Marvel's belt, but don't expect too much exposition. Still, there's more story here than in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies! The cast ups their game as we get glimpses into what they really fear, and makes me really wish there would be a Hulk stand-alone film. But what's most exciting is the mid-end-credit scene. I won't spoil it but it sets up for the next Avengers film: probably one of the most major events in comic book history. Whedon does a great job -- as usual -- but it is the humanity of Avengers: Age of Ultron which ultimately makes this film a memorable addition to the MCU.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My Most Anticipated Movies of 2015

It's that time of year again! Because the dawn of a new year in film is upon us, I figured I'd share the films with which I'm most excited to see in 2015 (in alphabetical order)! (Please note that all release dates of the films could change.):

Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Bradley CooperEmma StoneRachel McAdamsJohn KrasinskiBill MurrayJay Baruchel, and Danny McBride

Once called Deep Tiki, the currently-titled film, Aloha (which may change names again before its release), from writer-director Cameron Crowe (Almost FamousSay AnythingWe Bought a Zoo) is a dramedy (comedy/drama) about a disgraced 30-something U.S. weapons consultant, Brian Gilcrest (Cooper), who is deployed to a dormant military base in Hawaii to launch a spy satellite in response to aggression from China. While in Hawaii, with his U.S. Air Force assistant, Major Lisa Ng (Stone), Brian must get approval from the native Hawaiian council before the launch, all the while reconnecting with the love of his life, Tracy (McAdams) ... and her husband and kids. While the story sounds a bit simplistic -- and far-fetched -- leave it to Crowe to take such a concept and put his own special, particular spin on it to make one hell of a delightful movie. With an amazing comedic cast (especially the wonderful Cooper!) and the backdrop of Hawaii, there's much to anticipate with this film. To be released: May 29, 2015.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, and James Spader

Marvel consistently is upping its game, taking over not only the big screen but also the small screen (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter), but it is its massive Avengers initiative (bringing together A-list actors to portray the legendary Marvel heroes) which wins most fans' attention. So, since the first installment, what have our heroes been up to? Captain America (Evans) and Black Widow (Johansson) have been on missions together and seen the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was infiltrated and corrupted by its enemy HYDRA; Bruce Banner/Hulk (Ruffalo) went off to work at Stark Industries, alongside Tony Stark (Downey Jr.); after a major battle with Aldrich Killian, who tried to further weaponize the "Extremis" technology, Stark seemingly gives up his Iron Man persona to be with an ailing Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); Hawkeye (Renner) has been laying low; Thor (Hemsworth) saved his world, Asgard, and Earth from the evil Malekith, with his brother Loki (Hiddleston) posing as their father, Odin, and two Asgardians deliver an Infinity Stone (featured in Guardians of the Galaxy) to the Collector (Benecio del Toro), which, thanks to the Guardians, is currently in the custody of the NOVA Corps. In this sequel, the team come together once again to defeat the robotic threat that is Ultron (Spader), which -- in this film -- is created by Stark (in the comics, his creator is Hank Pym, who will be portrayed by Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man movie due out this year). There is no doubt this will mark the beginning of the "Civil War" storyline featured in the comics, which will lead into the next Captain America movie, to be released in 2016. To be released: May 1, 2015.

Directed by Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Judy Greer, Hayley Atwell, and John Slattery

First, many cinephiles were overjoyed at the announcement of cult director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) taking on Marvel's miniature might man. But it was short-lived as Wright soon dropped out and was replaced by director Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring it On, The Break-Up), known mostly for comedies. Although Reed doesn't have any action movies under his belt, it is still Marvel and I'm trusting they wouldn't hire someone who wasn't up for the challenge. The choice of having Paul Rudd (a comedic "everyman") portray protagonist Scott Lang is a bold choice -- and some say too risky -- but Rudd has proven he can do drama just as well as comedy. Plus, with the addition of Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter and Slattery as the older Howard Stark (Tony Stark's dad), there promises to be more flashback information to tie together Marvel's expanding cinematic universe. Although the film will not closely follow the Ant-Man comics, it still promises to be one of the top hits of the summer. To be released: July 17, 2015.

Black Mass
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Johnny DeppJoel EdgertonSienna Miller, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Corey StollAdam Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Based on the true story of how the FBI exploited a childhood friendship in order to take down Boston's Italian Mafia, Black Mass -- based on the non-fiction novel of the same name -- explores the friendship of childhood friends John Connolly (Edgerton) and James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp). In the late 1970s, Connolly grew up to be a major figure in the FBI's Boston office, and Bulger grew up to be godfather of the Irish Mob. The film examines how, through the two's friendship, the FBI used Bulger and his mob to take down the Italian Mafia, leading to the FBI's involvement in murders, drug dealing, racketeering indictments, and Bulger making the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted List. With an all-star cast, and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), the film promises to make a mark this year, as well as maybe garner some Oscar nominations. To be released: September 18, 2015.

Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom HanksAustin StowellAmy RyanAlan AldaSebastian Koch, and Eve Hewson

Matt: Steven Spielberg's newest film is the true-life event of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a Brooklyn lawyer and U.S. Navy Reserve commander, who negotiates the release of U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowall) after he is shot down in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. This is Spielberg doing what he does best, along with partner-in-crime Hanks, so I have big expectations with this one. To be released: October 16, 2015.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin, and Derek Jacobi

With the release -- and success -- of Disney's live-action Maleficent, the House of Mouse has been looking to transition other famous princesses into the live world. The next step, for release this year, is Cinderella (and Beauty and the Beast has already been given the green light with Emma Watson to star as Belle). With director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), the film promises to fit the style Disney likes to achieve. What's mostly a stand-out on this film, though, is the cast: Lily James (Downton Abbey) as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as her evil stepmother, Lady Tremaine (a perfect casting as far as I'm concerned). Hopefully, Disney can deliver on a script as good as Maleficent, with its ability to take a somewhat simplistic story and giving it multiple layers. To be released: March 13, 2015.

The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack, and Ron Livingston

This is a biographical film (biopic) of writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46, based on the 2010 non-fiction David Lipsky book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. The film follows Lipsky (Eisenberg), who accompanies Wallace (Segel) on his book tour to promote his novel, Infinite Jest. To be released: January 24, 2015.

Directed by Doug Ellin
Starring Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Jeremy Piven, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Dillon, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Billy Bob Thornton, Haley Joel Osment, Rex Lee, and Perrey Reeves

For fans of the hit HBO series, this is long overdue! Especially since there were some unanswered questions left by the series finale. To see the cast again reminds me of what made the series so fun and so entertaining. Let's hope Doug Ellin can keep that same magic going with a full-feature film. For those who don't know, Entourage is loosely based on actor Mark Wahlberg's life as he hails from Boston (in the series/movie, the character Vince Chase hails from Queens, New York) and has his entourage made up of childhood friends. In the series, Chase (Adrian Grenier) is a successful actor who is managed by best friend Eric (or "E") (Kevin Connolly), and accompanied by his D-list actor brother, Drama (Kevin Dillon) and his driver, Turtle (Jerry Ferrara). The show follows them as they are "fish-out-of-water" trying to navigate the roads of Hollywood, lead by Chase's lovable-jerk-of-an-agent Ari (Jeremy Piven). The film promises to be an end-all to the story and I'm looking forward to seeing each of the characters (hopefully) succeed. To be released: June 5, 2015.

Directed by Joe Lynch
Starring Salma Hayek, Jennifer Blanc, and Hiroyuki Watanabe

Salma Hayek is stirring up some action in her latest film, about a single mother who finds herself in an apartment where multiple assassins are sent to kill her. In order to save her mother and daughter, she must fight her way through the melee of dangerous killers and find a way out of the building ... and her situation. This isn't the first time Hayek has played action (the most notable being Once Upon a Time in Mexico), but this is the first time she has taken the lead. And I can't wait to see how she does it. In a film reminiscent of Smokin' Aces and Shoot 'Em Up, there promises to be lots of action and lots of funny sight gags and cheesy one-liners. To be released: February 27, 2015.

The Fantastic Four
Directed by Josh Trank
Starring Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, and Reg E. Cathey

Marvel's Fantastic Four is one of those franchises which -- for some reason or another -- is so difficult to adapt into a decent film. The original (starring Chris Evans, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, and Ioan Gruffold) was a major stinker, but if anyone can revitalize the franchise, it's director Josh Trank -- the awesome director behind the sleeper hit Chronicle (a found-footage film showing the birth of a supervillain, in a real-world setting). Plus, with Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan leading the film, there is a lot of acting strength here. Let's just hope the screenwriters get this right! To be released: August 7, 2015.

Directed by Rob Letterman
Starring Odeya Rush, Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Ken Marino, Dylan Minnette, Ryan Lee, and Halston Sage

I have to admit that I'm more excited to see this with my daughters more than anything else. They're big fans of the series and we're looking forward to going and see this together. Based on R.L. Stine's series of young adult/tween horror books and the 1995 TV anthology series, Goosebumps promises to have plenty of thrills as a kid must team up with Stine's niece (Odeya Rush) after Stine's (Jack Black) imaginary demons are set loose on the town of Greendale, Maryland. To be released: August 7, 2015.

High-Rise (2015)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, and Sienna Guillory

I was quite excited when I read this film -- based on the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard -- was going to be released. The story is about a class war which erupts within a luxurious apartment building, transforming the building into a battleground between economic classes. Lead character Dr. Robert Laing will be played by Tom Hiddleston, and the story will stick to its metaphor of the building representing wealth class politics in America. Really can't wait to see this one! To be released: TBD 2015.

In the Heart of the Sea
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom HollandBen Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson

Based on the true life 1820 event which inspired Herman Melville to write the classic novel Moby Dick, and based on Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction novel In the Heart of the Sea, this film looks like it could be a cross between The Perfect Storm and Jaws. The story follows a whaling ship crew, lead by its Captain George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who are stalked and hunted by a large sperm whale, which strands the crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home. Director Ron Howard hasn't had any major solid hits lately -- his last film being 2013's Rush, with Hemsworth -- but this looks to put him back on the map. Plus, there's always an intriguing story when it comes to man vs. nature. It makes for great drama! To be released: December 11, 2015.

Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, and Kaitlyn Dias

Pixar promises to strike cinematic gold again with its latest release: Inside Out. This time, the master animators are bringing audiences into our brains to see the inner workings of Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). They all reside in each of us, but this particular set of emotions reside within "tween" girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). They help guide her through the difficult process of her life being suddenly uprooted and having to move to San Francisco, where she has no friends and has to navigate the new city, school and home with many conflicting emotions in the "headquarters of her mind." I'm excited to take my girls to see this and, as for why it may be good, it's Pixar! There doesn't need to be any other reason. To be released: June 19, 2015.

Jupiter Ascending
Directed by The Wachowskis
Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Douglas Booth

Originally set for release last year, the film got pushed back to its new release date to contend with lesser blockbuster films and gain some more audiences. Fortunately, it comes to most movie-goers in February -- a time when there aren't many major film releases -- and is a film with more originality than 99% of main studio releases nowadays. In the film, a caretaker, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), is surprisingly targeted by a ruthless son (Eddie Redmayne) of a powerful family that live on a planet in need of a new heir. Jones travels with a genetically-engineered warrior (Channing Tatum) -- sworn to protect her -- to the planet in order to stop the son's tyrannical reign. The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) are very visual and action-oriented directors but, no matter what they do, their methods effectively work ... and work well. I don't let the visual effects sway me into wanting to see this film, but am ultimately excited to see where the story goes ... even if it may somewhat be predictable. To be released: February 6, 2015.

Jurassic World
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jake Johnson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, BD Wong, Judy Greer, and Katie McGrath  

Fourteen years after the last Jurassic Park film (Jurassic Park 3), the franchise has been brought back to life by director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), with the story taking place 22 years after the events of the original Jurassic Park. In the film, the island of Isla Nubar now features a fully-functioning Jurassic World theme park (like the one conceived of in the original 1993 film), but, after 10 years of low ticket sales and attendance, the owners concoct a scheme to draw more crowds to the park and up their revenue in the process. Unfortunately, the new "scheme" is a new genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur called the Indominus Rex, and it breaks loose on the island, wreaking havoc and killing patrons. It's up to the park's staff, lead by Velociraptor behavioral researcher Owen (Chris Pratt). Sure, the premise sounds like some B-movie you may watch on the SyFy channel, but with the cast and involvement of Trevorrow, my interest is certainly piqued to visit the park once again. Plus, I love the premise of the film(s) as it shows how humans' involvement with wildlife as entertainment is just another form of a reality-show mentality (notice in the trailer the audience cheering when an aquatic dinosaur feeds on a great white shark); in a way it's perverse and this film's story reminds us of that. Unlike the reality shows we see on TV, these "participants" did not volunteer for their "work" and, most times, are not happy with their environment (I'm looking at you, SeaWorld!). To be released: June 12, 2015.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

I have to admit that I never was that crazy about the Mad Max series of films, but this one looks way too cool to pass up seeing in the theater! The casting of Tom Hardy as Max (the original role being portrayed by Mel Gibson) is nothing short of brilliant and the film looks like one ride through literal hell! In an apocalyptic future set in a dust-bowl desert, Max comes across Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a mysterious woman on a mission to cross the desert, back to her childhood homeland. Along the way, they meet several degenerate pirates, who hunt for blood and nothing more. Like I said, Mad Max has not been my favorite -- although I have wonderful memories of going to see Beyond Thunderdome in the theater when it was released in 1985! But this trailer makes this film seem like one of the craziest films to be released in the past 10 years or so (although Verdi's "Requiem" only makes me think of the beginning of Battle Royale)! So I'm onboard! Start your engines! To be released: May 15, 2015.

Directed by Jared Hess
Starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen WilsonKristen WiigDevin Ratray, Jason Sudeikis, Ken Marino, and Kate McKinnon

Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery in North Carolina, this film follows armored car driver and vault supervisor David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), who, along with many accomplices, steals $17.3 million in cash. Because of the comedic actors picked for the film, I think it's not a stretch to say this film will be more comedic in tone, but at least it's not at the expense at someone's life (a major problem when Michael Bay's Pain & Gain -- a film that made comedic situations over someone's murder -- was released). I'm intrigued to see what director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) will do with this. To be released: August 14, 2015.

Directed by Kyle Balda & Pierre Coffin
Starring Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, and Jennifer Saunders

Set in 1968, 42 years before their adventures with Gru from Despicable Me, the Minions -- led by Stuart, Kevin and Bob -- are looking for a new evil master to serve when they come across Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), an aspiring villain, in New York City. Not much else is known about the plot other than that, but with the same team from Despicable Me leading this film, there promises to be plenty of laughs. Another one I'm looking forward to seeing with my kids! To be released: July 10, 2015.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon McBurney, and Alec Baldwin

After Brad Bird did such an amazing job with its predecessor, I'm looking forward to seeing what Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Way of the Gun) does with the franchise! The Mission: Impossible series has come a long way since its dismal first and second films. The only thing known about the plot is the IMF team (Cruise, Pegg, Rhames, and Renner) take on eradicating The Syndicate -- an international rogue organization committed to destroying the IMF. To be released: July 31, 2015.

Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried, and Garrett Hedlund

Director Joe Wright is taking the legend of J.M. Barrie's literary immortal "boy-who-never-wants-to-grow-up" and turning it into somewhat of an origin story. In the film, Peter (Levi Miller) is spirited away to a magical land where he comes to know fun and danger while meeting the pirates Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), Hook (Garrett Hedlund), and Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). I've always been a fan of the world of Neverland and look forward to seeing this particular spin on the myth! To be released: July 17, 2015.

The Peanuts Movie
Directed by Steve Martino
Starring Noah Schnapp, Venus Schultheis, Mariel Sheets, Hadley Belle Miller, Noah Johnston, Rebecca Bloom, and Alexander Garfin

It's been a while since the Peanuts gang have seen the screen, and while this release makes me a little wary, I have to say, I'm very excited about this film! I've been a Charlie Brown/Snoopy fan since I was a kid and I gratuitously watch the Peanuts specials on TV every year. I have to admit I find a spiritual comradeship with Charlie Brown ("I got a rock."). And now, with having kids, I look forward to taking them to see this movie -- even if it's more for me than for them! To be released: November 6, 2015.

Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Michelle Monaghan, Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Sean Bean, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski, and Kevin James

Gamers of all generations! Take note! There is a new movie coming out this year about 1980s video games characters attacking New York! And even though Adam Sandler is involved, Pixels looks to be as every bit of awesome as it sounds. In the film, video game experts -- lead by Sam Brenner (Sandler) -- are called on by his childhood friend-now-President Will Cooper (Kevin James) to help save the U.S. (and the world) from aliens that misinterpret video feeds from classic 1980s video games as a declaration of war against them, thus using the games as models from their various assaults. For anyone who grew up playing Atari 2600 (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Centipede, etc.), this film will be a must-see. And I know that's what the production companies are banking on, but they sure got my money! To be released: July 24, 2015.

Directed by Alejandro Amenabar
Starring Emma Watson, Ethan Hawke, David Thewlis, Devon Bostick, Dale Dickey, and Aaron Ashmore

All that is known about this film is a father is accused of sexually abusing his daughter (Watson) -- a crime of which he has no memory of committing. This film is the disturbing tale of a father and daughter torn apart, and the detective (Hawke) investigating the case, thrown into the center of a conspiracy that shocks the nation. While that is not much to go on -- and sexual abuse films are not my "cup of tea" -- I still am looking forward to seeing this film solely based on its leadership under excellent filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, The Others, The Sea Inside). Amenabar knows drama and how to expertly weave an intriguing tale so this will be one I won't miss. To be released: August 28, 2015.

The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring Tom Hardy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, and Lukas Haas

Based on the novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant is about frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, in the 1823, sets out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling. Not only is the film directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- fresh off his impressive, Oscar-nominated Birdman -- but it's a revenge pic with DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. 'Nuff said. To be released: December 25, 2015.

Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, and Andrew Scott

It's James Bond. There is no further explanation needed. To be released: November 6, 2015.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong'o, Max von Sydow, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker

I've heard one potential storyline for this sequel to 1983's Return of the Jedi, and all I will say is that if what I read is going to be the film, I will be disappointed. However, I'll still give it a try. I'm looking forward to the return of original trilogy characters Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), but also very curious how the new characters will figure well into such a huge saga. I was hoping director Brad Bird would take up the task on this film, but I got my very-close-second J.J. Abrams so I'm very happy. Either way, it's the Wars, so I'll be first in line come opening day! To be released: December 18, 2015.

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Starring Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti, Keith Stanfield, and Neil Brown Jr.

The biopic of gangsta rap group N.W.A. may not be for everyone, but I can't wait to see the early lives of some of rap's most influential pioneers (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E) brought to the screen. Plus, I think F. Gary Gray is a great filmmaker. While not a huge rap fan, even I have to say this film is long overdue. (WARNING: The trailer below is a red-band trailer, meaning there is expletive language and brief nudity.) To be released: August 14, 2015.

Directed by Brad Bird
Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Kathryn Hahn, Hugh Laurie, Pierce Gagnon, Judy Greer, and Tim McGraw

Rather than take on the newest Star Wars, director Brad Bird decided to stay loyal to his commitment to Disney to make the long-awaited Tomorrowland -- based on the theme park at Disney World. In the film, a teenager (Britt Robertson), who loves science, teams up with a former boy-genius inventor (George Clooney) to embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory. Disney is keeping the story very hush-hush, but with a screenplay by Bird and Lost alum Damon Lindelof, there is great promise here, in which I'm sure will be a story for all ages. To be released: May 22, 2015.

Triple Nine
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Clifton Collins Jr.

In this all-star cast movie, a group of corrupt cops are blackmailed into pulling off a seemingly impossible heist, which includes the murder of a rookie police officer -- a code "999" -- in order to distract the other cops while they pull the heist. The cast is what makes me most excited for this film, along with direction by John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless). To be released: September 11, 2015.

True Story
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol, Genevieve Angelson, and Robert John Burke

Based on the true story of journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), who finds out his identity had been stolen by murdering fugitive Christian Longo after Longo murdered his own wife and children in December 2001. The film deals with Finkel's interviewing of Longo and getting to know him -- giving the film tones of Infamous. To be released: April 10, 2015.

Directed by John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein
Starring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena, Elizabeth Gillies, Charlie Day, Chevy Chase, and Beverly D'Angelo

This reboot/sequel of the classic National Lampoon's Vacation series is either going to be really funny or really lame. In the film, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is finally grown up and, inspired by his father Clark (Chevy Chase), taking his family on a trip to Wally World before it closes down permanently. Although Wally World's security guard (the late, great John Candy) and Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) will be sorely missed, I still think this film has great potential. Let's just hope Lindsay Buckingham's "Holiday Road" makes an appearance! To be released: October 9, 2015.

The Walk
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Steve Valentine

After the documentary Man on Wire, great interest was sparked about Philippe Petit, the French man who walked between the two Twin Towers (of the World Trade Center) in Manhattan in 1974 -- one year after the finish of its construction. This film directed by Robert Zemeckis, follows Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his team as they get ready for the legendary feat. NOTE: If you're afraid of heights, this may not be the movie for you to see -- as evidenced in the trailer alone! To be released: October 2, 2015. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Top Albums of 2014

It has been a very disappointing year in music ... and each year seems to be getting worse and worse as the music single becomes the ever-important "mark of success" for most musicians. This is all due to the workings of iTunes, which any music lover can buy a single song, without having to buy the entire album. Because of this aspect, musicians -- and their record companies -- don't worry about an entire album being a success, but, rather, just a few singles.  Nevertheless, I was able to find 10 albums which impressed me in 2014. And here they are ... in alphabetical order:

"Strange Desire"

From the opening track, "Wild Heart," one may think they're listening to a soundtrack from one of their favorite John Hughes 80s teen films. But the album "Strange Desire" is the band Bleachers' debut album. Using synth pop rock, some rollicking guitar riffs and catchy choruses, Bleachers has put out an entire album worth listening either in your car on a night out or in the privacy of your own home, breaking out some of the (in)famous 80s dance moves ... especially with the frenetic "I Wanna Get Better" and the percussion-riddled "Like a River Runs." But there is also a bit slower tempo mood to this album -- such as the track "Take Me Away," featuring Vancouver singer Grimes, and the closing track "Who I Want You to Love." So, while Bleachers has all the sounds of an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (O.M.D.), Yaz (a.k.a. Yazoo), or 80s Echo & The Bunnymen, the band has the better songwriting to entice any 80s alternative music fan or someone looking for something new in an age of same-sounding rock-pop or dance pop.

Favorite Track - "Wild Heart"

"Favorite Waitress"
The Felice Brothers

When The Felice Brothers' self-titled fifth album -- and first major release -- was released in 2008, I named it one of the best of the year. Even though the band has released four albums since, they haven't come as close to a hit as they have with "Favorite Waitress." But don't go thinking this is some "Felice Brothers Part 2." This album has more jingle-jangle slower tempo songs than their self-titled album, even though lead singer Ian Felice still sounds like Bob Dylan but, this time, sounding more like his legendary album with The Band. "Favorite Waitress" sounds like music to get drunk to, but it's worth a listen any time of the day.

Favorite Track - "Cherry Licorice"

"Get Hurt"
The Gaslight Anthem

New Jersey's own The Gaslight Anthem has had a hit-or-miss career so far. Their debut album, "Sink or Swim," was more punk-rock and failed to get the attention they -- and the album -- so richly deserved at the time. Then came their sophomore album, "The '59 Sound," which proved there was no slump to be found. I consider "The '59 Sound" to be one of the best albums of all time! Then came "American Slang," which promised to be a more hard-sounding album -- in the vein of The Clash. While I did place that album on the 2010 Top Albums list, it barely made the cut ... with a majority of forgettable tracks. Then came 2012's amazing "Handwritten" album, which returned their sound to the likes of their hit album "The '59 Sound." This year, the band first released an album of their B-sides, which was good enough to hold off fans until their latest release, "Get Hurt." Although not as catchy as "Handwritten," "Get Hurt" captures more of the poignant, bittersweet emotions found in those previous albums and fills this whole album with them. And while the band still slightly channels sounds of Bruce Springsteen, they also touch upon sounds of Pearl Jam (especially in the second track "1,000 Years") and Alice in Chains (on the opening track "Stay Vicious"). For a band that tries out so many different influencing sounds, they never fail to disappoint.

Favorite Track - "Get Hurt"

"Twist is the New Twerk"
Postmodern Jukebox

Classically-trained jazz and classical musician Scott Bradlee decided to take contemporary songs by artists such as Pitbull ("Timber"), Miley Cyrus ("We Can't Stop"), Robin Thicke ("Blurred Lines"), Carly Rae Jepsen ("Call Me Maybe"), Lana Del Rey ("Young and Beautiful"), and Guns n' Roses ("Sweet Child O' Mine") -- just to name a few -- and adapt them into jazz, blues, doo wop, and ragtime standards. I love 'em all! Especially the 60s girl group adaptation of Ellie Goulding's "Burn," which is featured on the album "Clubbin' With Grandpa." Bradlee has had quite a year, releasing four albums -- three regular albums and one Christmas album. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Bradlee and his talented posse of musicians (which have featured guest appearances by Dave KozMorgan JamesAmerican Idol's Casey Abrams, and Marie Digby) have utilized social media to their advantage, recording and releasing a new song almost every other week. You don't have to like any of the songs or their original artists to fall in love with these songs. That is Bradlee's success.

Favorite Track - "Timber" and "Burn"

"Historical Misappropriation"
Postmodern Jukebox

Bradlee's third release, "Historical Misappropriation," had more favorites for me as opposed to the second release ("Clubbin' With Grandpa"). The song choices -- and their adaptations -- were all well done ... with remakes of songs by Britney Spears ("Womanizer"), Sam Smith ("Stay With Me"), Cyndi Lauper ("Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"), Radiohead ("Creep"), Meghan Trainor ("All About That Bass"), and Bon Jovi ("Livin' On A Prayer"). Postmodern Jukebox may not be for everyone, but, in an age of same-sounding pop, rock and rap, they're a welcome extravagance.

Favorite Track - "All About That Bass"

"They Want My Soul"

Out of all the albums I've heard released this year, I was most surprised by how much I liked this one. I've only really ever heard one Spoon song, which I love: "The Underdog" (off their 2007 album "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga"). "They Want My Soul" sounds like The Black Keys and sometimes early rockin' David Bowie (although, "New York Kiss" sounds like Elvis Costello!) -- with Spoon showing some noteworthy guitar riffs. While I was not impressed with The Black Keys' 2014 release ("Turn Blue"), Spoon put out one good album. Every song leads into the next quite nicely and it's nice to have a nice rock n' roll album to listen to in one sitting.

Favorite Track - "Rent I Pay"


"High Hopes"
Bruce Springsteen

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who truly knows me. I'm a major Springsteen fan and it goes without saying that there's a major possibility of his albums making my top list of the year. While "High Hopes," in my opinion, is not the best contemporary Springsteen album (that goes to 2007's "Magic" and 2012's "Wrecking Ball"), it still has a lot of previously unreleased material and some real hidden, underrated gems -- such as the studio version of the previously released live song "American Skin (41 Shots)" (which is originally based on the 1999 police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, but has even more meaning now with the recent mass media coverage of police shootings), "Just Like Fire Would," "Hunter of Invisible Game" and "The Wall." Plus, the album is bookended by covers of under-the-radar songs, such as "High Hopes" (originally performed by The Havalinas) and "Dream Baby Dream" (originally performed by Suicide). Then there's my personal favorite on here -- "Frankie Fell in Love," which, if you listen to the lyrics, has so much going on and it all flows together with the music so seemingly effortlessly, it reminds me of his early songwriting. Springsteen proves with each release that he does have a certain sound but he can take that sound and make the songs something unique. While not as good as "Magic" or "Wrecking Ball," "High Hopes" betters "Working on a Dream." Add that along with his previous reissue of his first seven albums, remastered, and he's having one hell of a year!

Favorite Track - "Frankie Fell in Love"

"Rudderless Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"
Various Artists

Definitely one of the best films of the year! And the soundtrack follows suit. Featuring both the orchestral score by Eef Barzelay and the songs performed by the band Rudderless (Billy CrudupAnton YelchinBen Kweller, and Ryan Dean), this soundtrack has songs better than most anything found on the radio nowadays. My only complaint is that the songs aren't a bit longer but they work nicely. I prefer the band songs to the score, but the music -- as a whole -- is great! I can't recommend the soundtrack, or the movie, enough. If you're not into instrumental music, just download the band songs. Trust me. You'll be happy you did.

Favorite Track - "Stay With You"

"Everything Will Be Alright in the End"

When I listen to Weezer, I instantly think of the mid-1990s because that was when the band first hit the music scene, and I remember how integral they were to my high school experience. I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of "The Sweater Song," but I loved their other hits and their sound just correlates to that time. Most critics and haters pan the group for sounding the same. And while a majority of the group's songs do have that quality, all I can ask is: Who cares? If you're a band who has a trademark sound and you produce great songs which that sound good and fun, then what does it really matter in the long run? I've heard bands in which I've loved a particular sound and then they tried something different and fell flat ... several times! Weezer returns to the alternative rock which made them famous with albums "The Blue Album" and "Pinkerton" (one of the best albums ever!). In this album, former The Cars frontman Ric Ocasek produces some great songs with guitar riffs heavily reminiscent of Queen's Brian May -- particularly in the track "I've Had it Up to Here." Other songs such as "Ain't Got Nobody," "Eulogy for a Rock Band," "Da Vinci," and "Cleopatra" are also impressive and will perk up the ears of any 90s Weezer fan. 

Favorite Track - "Foolish Father"

"rose ave."
You + Me

I just heard this folk-country-pop duo -- consisting of singer-songwriter Pink (a.k.a. Alecia Moore) and Canadian rocker Dallas Green (a.k.a. City and Colour) -- as they performed live recently on a cable music channel. And to say I was impressed is an understatement. Sure, some may think this is the same idea as actress Zooey Deschanel's and M. Ward's group She & Him, but the style of music couldn't be more different! You + Me are completely grassroots-folk-bordering-on-the-very-slightest-bit-of-contemporary-country. And you don't have to like country music in the slightest to enjoy this album -- especially since the sound is 99% folk ballad. The album's sound is very intimate and, at times, melancholy; the pairing of Pink's beautiful voice and Green's melodic voice work very well together. The album sounds like two best friends whose love transcends romantic love, just getting together one day and having a marathon jam session. I've always loved Pink -- especially her voice -- and she shines here! Plus, the discovery of Green makes me want to rush out and hear what he's all about. My favorite song on here is "Open Door," a song which hit me like a sledgehammer with its poignancy and reflection of close relationships and how they affect us. "rose ave." is one of the best surprises of the year!

Favorite Track - "Open Door"

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