Author Archives: erichvandussen

The Worst Movies of 2015.

My column in today’s Daily Messenger looks at the best movies of 2015, an annual tradition that’s highly satisfying – and also overtly maddening, as there are always movies I haven’t seen and who knows which of those could be better than Mad Max: Fury Road or Ex Machina? For instance, I still haven’t watched Carol or The Revenant; should either of those slip into the list, I’ll try to let you know.

Compiling the year’s worst movies, on the other hand, is a different kind of challenge. There aren’t a lot of truly awful films out there; as with any creative effort, the quality graph swells in the middle, with many movies just winding up mediocre and dully satisfying in various ways. When you see something really bad it sticks with you, like a headache all the aspirin in the world can’t relieve.

'The Cobbler' (Voltage)

‘The Cobbler’ (Voltage)

Take The Cobbler, the year’s worst film, which I deliberately avoided at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2014 but sought out after it arrived on Netflix so I could write a column exploring Adam Sandler’s recent career choices. A wan fable about a Manhattan cobbler who discovers he can live the lives of his customers by wearing their shoes, The Cobbler is unfunny, unsubtle and very hard to sit through. And it has the dubious distinction of being directed by Tom McCarthy, a normally talented guy whose other 2015 release, Spotlight, made it to my Ten-Best list. I don’t think that’s ever happened before, and I hope it never happens again.

The rest of this year’s cinematic offal included:

A Walk in the Woods. the anti-Wild, this dull Appalachian Trail travelogue (based on the bestseller by Bill Bryson) was slow, pedantic and suffered from age-blind casting; did it really never occur to the filmmakers that we would wonder how 74-year-old Nick Nolte and 79-year-old Robert Redford could possibly handle the rigors of a 2,000-mile hike?

'Aloha' (Columbia)

‘Aloha’ (Columbia)

Aloha. I’m a Cameron Crowe fan from way back, but the director’s recent choices have been nothing short of tragic. Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo ranged from treacly to terrible, and heading to Hawaii for his latest didn’t make the outlook any less bleak. Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams all deserved better than this weak romantic-triangle conversion melodrama; the soundtrack was nice, but not with that terrible dialogue layered over it.

Fantastic Four. It really was that bad, a dour and lethargic take on super-hero action films that made Avengers: Age of Ultron look like The Magnificent Ambersons. This story of a family-oriented quartet of super-powered adventurers was Marvel Comics’ flagship title for many years, yet 20th Century Fox has been unable to make a decent movie out of their stories after three attempts. It’s time for Fox to punt, and return the rights to Disney.

'Some Kind of Beautiful' (Saban Films)

‘Some Kind of Beautiful’ (Saban Films)

Anything Starring Pierce Brosnan. Wikipedia says he’s made seven films in the last two years; I’ve seen six of them – The Love Punch, A Long Way Down, November Man, Some Kind of Beautiful, Survivor and No Escape – and all I can say is, fool me six times, shame on me. Only two got to theaters, with the rest landing on Netflix or VOD. But these are too consistently bad to lay blame anywhere but squarely on the shoulders of their aging Irish star.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Reviewed: The Force is Strong in This One.

John Boyega, left, and Oscar Isaac in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.' (Lucasfilm)

John Boyega, left, and Oscar Isaac in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ (Lucasfilm)

Since debuting in 1977, the Star Wars saga has transformed our popular culture in ways big and small, subtle and obvious. And what’s most remarkable about that feat is that it’s happened through six films of largely middling quality. The original was exciting and revelatory if raw in spots, and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was a masterpiece of its form; but Return of the Jedi was something of a stumble. And as for those prequels, well, if you can’t say anything nice….

It’s fair to say, then, that this is a franchise whose cumulative impact is much greater than the sum of its parts. The adventures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo et al, are thrilling in a way that doesn’t require any one movie to be great – not that a legitimately great installment wouldn’t be nice, you know?

Enter Star Wars: The Force Awakens (rated PG-13), the movie fans have been waiting for, in every sense, for a very long time. Equal parts sequel and remake, this seventh film moves the franchise forward with confidence, storytelling flair and the unmistakable enthusiasm of a creator who has loved these stories from the very beginning – even if he was only 11 when the first Star Wars came out. Forty-nine-year-old J.J. Abrams is a fan who’s been given the keys to the universe George Lucas built. Those keys are in good hands.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Force is set a few decades after the events of the original trilogy – far enough in the future to make Luke, Han and Princess Leia mythic figures in their universe, but not so far ahead that they’re incapable of showing up. First, though, we meet Fin (John Boyega), a stormtrooper for the First Order (formerly the Empire), who turns traitor just in time to save the life of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a pilot for the Resistance who has information that the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) would like very much. Poe hid the data inside a cute little droid before he was captured, and now the droid is more-or-less safe in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a humble orphan on a desert world.

Let’s stop for a moment and acknowledge the elephant in the room, shall we? The Force Awakens borrows a lot of plot from the original Star Wars. Fin is new, but he’s also little more than a narrative device to move the action forward (we never learn what inspires him to switch sides, for instance). And everything else mentioned so far is a beat-for-beat revisiting of the events in the first film. This becomes even more obvious later, when the imminent threat facing the Resistance is revealed as Starkiller Base, a planet-sized weapon whose menace and weaknesses are reminiscent of the Death Star.

All that is forgiven, however, when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) shows up out of nowhere with his faithful Wookiee companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) still by his side. The massive Star Wars galaxy suddenly feels like a very small world indeed, to have such singular characters happen to drop by. Han, Rey and Fin bring the droid to Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a general now instead of a princess, and the gang’s all here again. Except for Luke (Mark Hamill), of course – and hey, where is Luke anyway?

The Force Awakens is awash in fan-service moments that strain credulity, but by now Star Wars seems almost exempt from criticism for that sort of thing. What’s slightly less forgivable is the occasionally slack pacing of the action scenes, as if characters were posing for unseen audiences who can’t believe they’re watching another Star Wars movie. But no offenses are significant enough to take away the legitimate rush of watching the vintage performers pass the torch of this franchise to a new generation of characters – and all set to the music of composer John Williams, the franchise’s MVP since day one.

When you walk out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you’ll be prepared for a new era of battles between virtuous Jedi Knights and corrupt Sith Lords; of prideful boasts about how few parsecs it took the Millennium Falcon to do the Kessel Run; and of the British-accented droid C3PO (Anthony Daniels) chastising his pal R2D2 (Kenny Baker). It’ll all feel familiar, like the return of an old friend who hasn’t aged a bit. And if you’re 11 years old, who knows? A few decades from now you might even be picked to steer these adventures yourself for a while.

The Travesty of Remaking ‘Memento’; Or, Sam, Again It Play.

Guy Pearce in 'Memento.' (Newmarket Films)

Guy Pearce in ‘Memento.’ (Newmarket Films)

When Batman Begins debuted 10 years ago last summer, it drew fans from two distinct groups of filmgoers: Those who were desperate to rinse the taste of Batman and Robin out of their mouths, and those who had seen Memento. That 2000 film, an indie thriller that told its labyrinthine murder mystery backwards to help audiences appreciate the confusion of its amnesiac hero, put director Christopher Nolan on the cinematic map.

I was a big fan of Memento when it was released, as much for its bold filmmaking style as for its innovative spirit: It felt completely original, and truly original movies were – and remain – hard to find. Case in point: The announcement today that a remake of Nolan’s breakthrough film would be coming soon to a theater near us.

Remakes of semi-recent Hollywood properties are hardly big news, of course: They’ve become unavoidable now, with timid studio executives afraid to greenlight any big-budget project whose success isn’t pre-ordained. Recently announced remakes are all around us, including titles ranging from the arguably obscure (The Entity) to the ridiculously familiar (Ghostbusters) to the sacrilegiously perfect (Strangers on a Train).

Not all remakes are disasters, of course. When Steven Soderbergh made Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, not many people lined up to complain that his ultra-stylish, star-laden caper was treading on the sacred turf planted by Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack 35 years earlier. But that’s kind of the point: The most logical choices for remakes are films whose interesting premises have aged poorly, or who never received the first-class treatment their ingenuity deserved.

Those criteria don’t apply to Memento, a film that holds up as well 15 years later as it did when it was first released. Worse still for the planned remake, it was Nolan’s revolutionary take on the material that gave the film its zing: By finding a way to tell his story in reverse while still managing to have it make sense, he took the sturdy but unspectacular story (written by Nolan with his brother, Jonathan) and imbued it with startling life.

In fact, the puzzle gimmick of Memento did nothing to stop the film from being completely approachable and fun to watch. If someone wants to make money off the movie, why not just re-release it in theaters, a la the recent Fathom reissues of Home Alone and My Fair Lady? It would give new audiences a chance to check out an early film from the creator of The Dark Knight; fans of the original would show up in droves; and it would be a heck of a lot cheaper than investing in a brand-new iteration with questionable chances of success.

On the other hand, Nolan may have cut his teeth on original fare, but the Batman movies were hardly his only foray into previously invented work: His follow-up to Memento was a good-but-not-necessary remake of the brilliant Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Around comes, around goes what.

What Are You Doing Tonight? Watching ‘The Big Lebowski’ on Netflix, I Hope.

Jeff Bridges in 'The Big Lebowski.' (Gramercy Pictures)

Jeff Bridges in ‘The Big Lebowski.’ (Gramercy Pictures)

At midnight tonight, the distribution deal between Netflix’s online streaming service and the Epix premium movie channel will expire. This means more than 100 titles will vanish from Netflix’s online catalog overnight – including many newer releases such as World War Z, the Hunger Games movies and Transformers: Age of Extinction. (Many of these will head over to Hulu, thanks to the new Epix deal there.)

And yet, for some reason I can’t stop thinking about one particular loss, a 17-year-old non-hit about an unkempt guy in his bathrobe.

The Big Lebowski, as with many films from the offbeat siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, is not for everyone: It rambles and takes odd side-turns into absurdism, farce and beyond. But its slacker charms have inspired comparisons to Zen Buddhism, and Jeff Bridges has yet to find a better role – even the turn in Crazy Heart that won him an Oscar pales next to his performance as Jeff “The Dude” Lewbowski.

A love story between a man and his rug, Lebowski channels the L.A.-set detective fiction of Raymond Chandler as it depicts one man’s struggle to find justice: Some guys broke into The Dude’s apartment, thinking he was another Jeff Lebowski, and urinated on his floor covering.

Of course, the film is about much more than the rug. It’s also about white Russian cocktails and bowling and ransom demands and one of those Philip Seymour Hoffman supporting performances that helped cement the actor’s then-fledgling career.

Mostly, though, it’s about perseverance. The Dude’s uniquely comic stoner affect allows him to endure indignities, insults and injuries. One imagines that the offense of being kicked off Netflix’s playlist would be a walk in the park for him. The Dude, after all, abides.

If you have Netflix and nothing else to do this evening, watch (or re-watch) The Big Lebowski before it goes away. There are far worse ways to spend a Wednesday night.

“Terminator Genisys,” Reviewed: Metal Fatigue.

A robot from 'Terminator Genisys.' (Paramount Pictures)

A robot from ‘Terminator Genisys.’ (Paramount Pictures)

“Old, but not obsolete.” That phrase is invoked several times during Terminator Genisys (rated PG-13), initially by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old-on-the-outside T-800 killing machine, and eventually by the fully human sidekicks who follow him around, shooting stuff. It’s meant to refer to the T-800 specifically, of course, and also offers a meta-commentary on the spryness of Schwarzenegger himself, who looks pretty hale for a 67-year-old former governor. But as this laborious film wheezes and sputters through its marks, the mantra begins to take on a kind of subliminal influence: This 31-year-old franchise should have been decommissioned a long time ago – a fact clearly not lost on its creators.

If the 3D goggles worn during my screening of Genisys could convey smell as well as imaginary depth of field, I suspect I’d have picked up a whiff of desperation throughout Alan Taylor’s (Thor: The Dark World) film. This fourth sequel to James Cameron’s modestly brilliant source film is the third consecutive installment to feel like a tacked-on appendage to the vital organs that were The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Schwarzenegger sat out 2009’s Terminator Salvation, but his return now only underscores how lost the franchise is without him – and even with him, it’s on shaky ground.

The film starts off in 2029, showing the events of the first film from the perspective of the future freedom fighters who began this whole adventure. As before, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to 1984 to protect Connor’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from the robotic assassin on its way to kill her before John can be born. Reese arrives, looking for Sarah the timid waitress – but finds instead a battle-hardened Sarah and Schwarzenegger’s aged Terminator, who has been prepping her for war for the better part of a decade.

Welcome to the baffling world of time travel – a concept so logically elusive that, were it ever actually invented, would have to be outlawed just to spare ourselves a collective headache. Unlike the previous films, which pivoted around efforts to thwart a specific timeline from coming to fruition, this installment suggests a wholly different timeline as the solution to our heroes’ trouble. In this new timeline Skynet, the artificial intelligence that birthed the Terminators, is no more – but it’s been replaced by Genisys, a benign-looking piece of consumer software that’s still destined to adopt Skynet’s AI agenda. The more things change….

Reese and Sarah figure they can stop Genisys from completing its master plan by going back to the future – but to 2017, not 2029, for reasons that are explained but don’t really matter. Along the way they encounter four different Terminators in all; but more isn’t better, and flitting back and forth across the timestream can’t obscure the fact that the franchise seems to be running on vapors. Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) does a credible impersonation of Linda Hamilton, but the rest of the cast brings nothing to the film that hasn’t been done before, better. The end credits promise a sixth installment, but Terminator Genisys deserves to be the swan song of this particular sci-fi series. It’s old, it’s obsolete, and it’s over.

“Jurassic World,” Reviewed: Tooth Decay.

Chris Pratt in 'Jurassic World.' (Universal Pictures)

Chris Pratt in ‘Jurassic World.’ (Universal Pictures)

“No one’s impressed by a dinosaur any more,” says Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the administrator of the fully functioning theme park in Jurassic World (rated PG-13). She’s talking about the challenges of running an international tourist attraction, but the same could be said of jaded movie audiences and the knotty problem of getting us to return to the prehistoric party for a fourth time.

When Steven Spielberg brought Michael Crichton’s novel to glorious life in 1993, the cinematic combination of CGI and animatronics were just beginning to find its footing; as with James Cameron’s Terminator 2 just a couple of years earlier, he was able to show us a familiar onscreen villain with fresh graphic power. Jurassic Park was a horror movie with all-ages appeal, thanks to the sense of eye-popping wonder Spielberg packed into each frame.

But like the guests at Claire’s park, we’ve seen all that before; what else ya got? The solution in both cases is to go bigger and badder – “More teeth” is the command given to the park’s geneticists, and they deliver. If you judge Jurassic World by its ability to show you a new version of a dinosaur, writer/director Colin Trevorrow’s film is an unqualified success. If you want anything more – say, likable characters or a plausible story or anything that isn’t reduced, reused and recycled from the original – you may be profoundly disappointed.

The film is set 20 years after the genetically resuscitated beasts first ran amok (let’s pretend the middle two Jurassic films never happened), and the world appears to have conveniently forgotten just how incompatible humans and dinosaurs really are. The Jurassic World theme park is overflowing with guests of all ages, including Gray and Zach Mitchell (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson), Claire’s underage nephews who are there to visit their aunt and be put in harm’s way.

When the creatures inevitably bust loose, it’s kind of astonishing how unprepared the park employees are to do anything about it – but fortunately they have Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to save the day. Owen, who wears a leather vest to prove his action-hero bonafides, has developed a rapport with four velociraptors and respects the creatures enough not to want to mess with them. No one takes Owen seriously until the genetically enhanced Indominus Rex starts gobbling up staff members and pterodactyls swarm in the skies. But Owen can take it. Owen doesn’t mind. Aw, heck, Claire, give Owen a hug already, willya?

Director Trevorrow came to Jurassic World with exactly one feature film on his resume – the low-budget indie Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), a defiant non-blockbuster that told a time-travel story with offbeat wit instead of CGI trickery. I have no idea what possessed anyone to give him this for his next job, but he’s unsuited for the “promotion” – his action scenes are flat and his dialogue is wooden. Young Zach and Gray don’t have enough personality for us to care whether they wind up as dino chow, and Owen’s character as written saps every comedic instinct Pratt would likely have brought to the role. Only Howard shows occasional flashes of life as Claire, but the script keeps pushing her back into running-and-screaming mode.

When I heard Trevorrow was at the helm, I wondered if we were in for an bit of anti-establishment guerilla filmmaking – some kind of ironic take on what it means to make bloated blockbusters through the eyes of someone inclined to do more with less. Unfortunately, the irony seems unintentional: Jurassic World doesn’t realize it’s criticizing its own existence better than any critic can. When all you can offer audiences is “more teeth,” it may be time to stop gnawing on this particular bone.

Flashback: “Jurassic Park III,” Reviewed.

Sam Neill in 2001's 'Jurassic Park III.' (Universal Pictures)

Sam Neill in 2001’s ‘Jurassic Park III.’ (Universal Pictures)

I’m off tonight to see Jurassic World – look for a review tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s a review of the last dino-spectacle, from the prehistoric days of 2001….

Steven Spielberg has been voted off the Jurassic Park island, and the survivors are doing pretty well without him.

Jurassic Park III is the first of the series that began in 1993 not to be directed by Spielberg – a good sign for people like myself who thought the first film was inspired entertainment but the second a joyless mess. (Before 1997, Spielberg had never made a sequel that didn’t feature Indiana Jones; since The Lost World: Jurassic Park, I’ve dearly hoped he never will again.)

The new director, Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), sets aside Spielberg’s pretentious reverence to produce a slimmed-down movie with few ambitions other than providing 90 minutes of familiar thrills. If ever there were an argument to be made for mediocrity, Jurassic Park III is it.

In the years since his trip to Jurassic Park, paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) has enjoyed mixed fortunes: his speaking engagements have made him famous and sought-after, but funding has evaporated for his old-fashioned research digs: why study dinosaur fossils, when the real things are just off the coast of Costa Rica?

Enter the Kirbys (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni), wealthy thrill-seekers who hire Dr. Grant as a tour guide over a fly-over of the dino-infested Isla Sorna. Of course, they promise, they’d never think of landing on the island; of course, we eventually learn, that’s what they had in mind all along. Soon Dr. Grant is guiding a different kind of tour: Over there you’ll see some velociraptors … they’re getting ready to eat us….

Each Jurassic film requires that people rather stupidly go to this remote island, struggle for a while, and escape, making the franchise hardly a hallmark of narrative innovation. This time, the only device more ridiculous than the one that brings the humans to Isla Sorna is the one that facilitates their escape. Jurassic Park III is basically a dinosaur-delivery device; it’s the meaty midsection – in which the humans flee raptors, T-rexes, and a colossal Spinosaurus – that delivers.

Creature guru Stan Winston magnificently breathes life into the dinosaurs for bravura sequences, especially one involving a beast new to the series – a winged pteranodon, trapped with its human prey inside a giant birdcage. Leoni doesn’t have much to do, but Neill and Macy perform admirably against their digital co-stars. They genuinely seem as if they’d rather be anywhere but on that island. Still, for the enjoyable middle of Jurassic Park III, we’re plenty glad they’re there.

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” Reviewed: The Fast and the Furiosa.

Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road.' (Warner Bros.)

Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’ (Warner Bros.)

When a storyteller stops telling one particular story for 30 years, it’s safe to assume he won’t be coming back to it without having something remarkable to say. So it is with George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road (rated R), a fourth installment in the post-apocalyptic car-chase saga that began in the late 1970s and went into hibernation after the second sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, in 1985. I bought my ticket and sat down to watch this return with jaded skepticism: Another sequel no one asked for. I was wrong. Go see this movie.

The Australian-import Max films always skewed toward a particular taste: They’re not just action movies, but over-the-top acts of cinematic anarchy with a love of vehicular carnage and a fashion sense that overindulges on punk rock. The original Mad Max and Mad Max 2 (renamed The Road Warrior when it came to America) made Mel Gibson an international star, and helped define a subgenre of muscular action movies – ’roid-rage flicks, before that term even existed.

Tom Hardy as Max. (WB)

Tom Hardy as Max. (WB)

What’s new about Fury Road? Well, Gibson is gone, of course, replaced by Tom Hardy (Locke) with an ease that reminds me of just how disposable some actors can be. But the title character, onetime cop turned desert-dwelling nomad Max Rockatansky, isn’t really the star of this installment anyway. This time Miller lets the women do the driving – a revolutionary act, in a franchise that historically had no time for women. The result is jarring and extraordinary – not for politically correct reasons, but just for its bracingly different perspective. Fury Road is the Mad Max film we never knew we always wanted.

Specifically, Miller hands the keys to his franchise to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a grim one-armed heroine with a past that motivates her to strive for change in this post-nuclear wasteland. While on a gasoline run for her boss, the disfigured hulk Immortan Joe (Hugo Keays-Byrne), she steals his five best “wives” and hits the road in search of … well, that would be telling. Max winds up tagging along, and Hardy’s taciturn loner adds value to Furiosa’s journey – especially when Joe sends teams of pale-skinned War Boys and sharpshooters after his escaped citizens.

What follows is essentially a two-hour car chase across an unnamed desert (the film was shot in Namibia), as hordes of souped-up vehicles crash, careen and explode with brutally choreographed precision. Furiosa’s stolen tanker truck is just big enough to provide its own set pieces for intimate action sequences – think of it as a moving version of the skyscraper in Die Hard – and the driver, her charges and her Mad co-pilot all hold their own in one-on-one and group encounters with Joe’s rampaging army.

The relentlessness of the enterprise would be impressive enough, but Miller has upped the ante by making Fury Road beautiful in its sweeping scale. He brought in John Seale, the cinematographer who made the dunes in The English Patient look almost sensual; but more importantly, he’s turned this perpetual-motion world into a demented circus, with eye-popping details that make every scene feel deliriously overstuffed. While the cars pound away in the background of one scene, an anonymous character slowly strides in front of the action, dressed in rags and suspended on stilts. Why? For no better reason than the decision to strap a hard-rock guitar player on the front of one of Joe’s trucks – playing an instrument that spits fire, naturally, and contributing a mobile soundtrack to all this savagery.

These extra bits are there because Miller says so, that’s why. The over-the-top elements contribute to a feeling that you’re watching one of the most full realized films in recent history – a work of cinematic courage that makes a bold argument for summertime blockbusters having the potential of true art. They don’t distract from Theron’s haunted performance as Furiosa, or from the sense of urgency to her journey. But taken together, they make Mad Max: Fury Road something special in this summer wasteland of buddy comedies and superhero slugfests. It’s a film that took 30 years to get here, and was absolutely worth the wait.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Reviewed: Superheroics and String Theory.

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron.' (Marvel/Disney)

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron.’ (Marvel/Disney)

Photoshop, the image-manipulation software NASA used to fake the moon landing, has a useful feature called Flatten Image. After you’ve monkeyed around with backgrounds, foregrounds, colors and shading, flattening the file seals those changes into a single impenetrable level – as if putting the image behind glass, or, I suppose, turning it back into a unchangeable photograph. (At least, I think that’s how it works. I hardly ever use Photoshop.)

For some reason that particular analogy popped into my head last night during a screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron (rated PG-13) – and it wasn’t because I watched it in 2D instead of 3D. Writer-director Joss Whedon, the reigning creative king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has pulled off the impossible and delivered a skillful sequel to his 2012 ensemble opus that’s bigger, louder, more complex and yet easier to follow than the first Avengers. By rights there should be too many characters in this film, and yet no one feels shortchanged by the brisk plot and adorably chatty script. (Don’t get too attached to each and every character, however: This is still a Whedon movie, if you know what I mean.)

And yet there’s this … flatness to the affair. It’s a product that feels like a product – processed, spliced and diced, and pre-chewed for easy digestion. Age of Ultron is absolutely entertaining, but that inescapable feeling of manufactured-ness keeps the puppet, as it were, from becoming a real boy.

The first Avengers was obligated to spend precious minutes bringing the superheroic band together, but this sequel quite literally hits the ground running. There’s an opening sequence that’s wall-to-wall action, as our team of heroes – Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – beats the snot out of a platoon of rent-a-goons in an eastern European forest. There they find Loki’s scepter, lost since the first film, as well as a super-powered brother-and-sister team, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, looking much less married than they did in last summer’s Godzilla), with an axe to grind against Downey’s Tony Stark.

Downey remains the MVP of the MCU, giving us a wisecracking Iron Man whose brilliant mind is both his secret weapon and his own worst enemy: Stark thinks too many levels ahead, and lets his anxieties about what could happen color his actions in the moment. In this case, the futuristic energy contained in Loki’s scepter inspires him to create that artificial intelligence he’s been dreaming of – he’s worried about threats that might someday be bigger than the Avengers can handle, and as an inventor he figures he can build a machine that will save the day.

It doesn’t work. That AI is the robotic Ultron (James Spader), and literally within the time it takes for the Avengers to enjoy an after-hours party, this newly created super-intelligence calculates that the best way to protect humanity is to wipe it out – starting with our heroes. Ultron is connected to the world’s computers and likes to create increasingly indestructible bodies for himself to inhabit; he’s a tough cookie. And when the other Avengers learn who created him, they get sooooo mad.

Age of Ultron hits its marks with deceptive ease: The battle sequences are long and sustained and (mostly) well-choreographed, and a couple of times Whedon cuts to slow-motion to let us drink in the full-tilt glory of an orgiastic scene of wide-scale super action. He’s still at his best, though, in the human moments between the characters – the running jokes about Cap’s fuddy-duddies and Thor’s enchanted hammer, and a surprisingly sincere flirtation between Johansson’s emotionally scarred former killer and Ruffalo’s scientist who fears the gamma-generated rage machine that lurks inside him.

After 11 interconnected films we know what to expect from the MCU brand in general, and Avengers in particular: Each film exists to thrill us in the moment and prepare us for the next chapter. On that score Age of Ultron is pretty close to an unqualified success … but I’m not surprised to learn that Whedon himself has said he’s done with the franchise after this entry. He’s a pop-culture geek, but his own superpower is his ability to inject humanity into his creations. At one point Ultron references Pinocchio, as I did above, and comments that there are no strings on him any more. But the film’s strings are still there, and the bigger the MCU gets, the harder it will be to ignore them.

“Ex Machina,” Reviewed: Aye, Robot.

Oscar Isaac, left, and Domhnall Gleason in "Ex Machina." (A24 Films)

Oscar Isaac, left, and Domhnall Gleason in “Ex Machina.” (A24 Films)

In Alex Garland’s moody, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller Ex Machina (rated R), people use people and people use machines, so it’s only natural that machines might also use people. That’s cynical stuff, and to be sure a strong thread of cynicism runs through Garland’s story. But there’s also that sense of hope that comes with discovery: The characters are opening doors that have never been opened before, and they’re not quite prepared for what might be on the other side.

Garland is an ace screenwriter who cut his teeth working with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), so it’s not surprising that he would efficiently set the stage for his directorial debut. In the first five minutes or so we learn that Caleb (Domhnall Gleason), a computer programmer for the world’s largest search engine company, has won a lottery to spend a week at the secluded estate of his reclusive employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Much of the estate appears to be an underground, concrete-walled bunker, and Nathan tells Caleb that’s because it’s actually a research facility. Nathan has what we would call a terrible work-life balance, and he’s brought Caleb into his inner circle not for a vacation, but for a project. For the next week Caleb is to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid artificial intelligence Nathan has built from scratch. The inventor needs a third party to test-drive Ava’s A.I. and see if she really represents the quantum leap that programmers have lusted after for generations.

Nathan, we soon learn, is a true genius and a genuine jerk, but Caleb quickly moves from being in awe of his boss to being enamored of his boss’s creation. In a series of interview sessions with Ava, the wide-eyed programmer finds himself falling for this exotic mélange of ladylike curves and exposed wires. Vikander, a Swedish actress with only a few past roles under her belt, uses her onscreen anonymity to her advantage: She comes across as a true cipher here, and we’re so busy being impressed by Ava’s self-awareness that we forget what it might mean if this machine is really self-aware.

For his first time behind the camera, Garland shows no trace of uncertainty: He draws definitive performances from his actors without having them say aloud every thought that obviously crosses their minds. (This effect is particularly powerful with Nathan, played by Isaac with just the right balance of enigmatic arrogance and vulgar friendliness.) The austere interiors of Nathan’s concrete palace are beautiful yet claustrophobic, creating an atmospheric soup of the perfect temperature for these characters and their surreal journey.

It feels important somehow not to give away too much of what actually happens in Ex Machina; there’s a thrill of seeing it for yourself that shouldn’t be denied. This is an important film – the best movie of the year, so far, and a once-a-decade sci-fi experience that addresses big issues in an utterly relatable way. Remember that sense of discovery I mentioned above, the ones that the characters encounter? Audiences are about to discover something too. Go see Ex Machina. You’ll want to be there when Nathan, Caleb and Ava start opening those doors.