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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Leftovers: Spring 2015

Kindred---Passion Pit
        Despite the relentless kaleidoscopic colors and energy of Passion Pit's sound, Michael Angelakos' constantly brutal, self-eviscerating lyrics have always balanced things out... until now. Kindred takes its name from the empowering, life-affirming connection Angelakos feels with his family and friends, nearly each track relying one deeply felt gratitude or another. Lead single/opener Lifted Up (1985) announces this new mission statement with a candy-coated wave of stadium-sized synths, and while this aesthetic feels wholly familiar, its twin themes of love and destiny finally match the high-fructose rush that defines Passion Pit. Perhaps this new-found contentment is why Kindred frequently feels less big and bombastic than previous offerings, sneaky earworms like Whole Life Story and Looks Like Rain featuring only minimal adornment, allowing subtle sonics and blissful words to take over. One would be forgiven for missing that joy/misery dichotomy found on their early records, but when Until We Can't (Let's Go) and Five Foot Ten (I) get things going, most complaints are rendered mute.

MCIII---Mikal Cronin
        As aggrandizing as this might sound for a guy still toiling in relative anonymity, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better American songwriter that Mikal Cronin. Don't mistake this for the sort of prodigy/game-changer tag applied to artists like Radiohead or Animal Collective; Cronin's gift is in finding unnervingly immediate melodies and undeniable guitar riffs within established boundaries, not outside of them. MCIII can hardly contain the beauty of his craftsmanship, sumptuous strings and lovely keys pouring out of opener Turn Around from the moment you hit play, slipping into the background to support I've Been Loved's comely acoustic lament. He even manages to step on the gas from time-to-time, Say launching off the blocks into distortion-covered, horn blowing triumph, Ready serving as its pounding, urgent late-album counterpart. The songs Cronin pens and plays pull off that most elusive of musical magic tricks; even on first spin, you feel like you've been listening to these cuts for as long as you can remember.

Mr. Wonderful---Action Bronson
        Action Bronson opens the song Only in America by claiming "I'm focused, I swear I'm focused," which, even by the fib-telling MCs own standards, is a flagrant lie. Focus is, by every conceivable measurement, the very antithesis of all things Arian Arslani, the Queens-based rapper with the voice of Ghostface Killah, the body of a 300+ pound Albanian, and the imagination of a 8-year-old who just found daddy's stash of Playboy magazines and gangster movies. Wether adorned in red silk at a Montigo resort (Galactic Love) or impressing the Eastern seaboard with his keyboard virtuoso (Terry), Bronson's glorious fantasies are delivered with easy swagger, and a non-perfectionist attitude that outright embraces the MCs occasional lyrical slip-ups (Brand New Car). These punch-lines and fairy-tales lay on top of one stunning beat after another, from the breezily retro Falconry on down to Actin Crazy, which sounds like Drop it like it's Hot turned inside out. But there's no better example of Bronson's appeal than Baby Blue, with its sturdy piano base, goofily resilient lyrics, awesome Chance the Rapper guest verse, and jazzy horn outtro.

Sound & Color---Alabama Shakes
        Well that was fast. Alabama Shakes formed in 2009, released a 4-song EP and started touring in 2011, and watched their debut LP Boys & Girls go gold in 2012. Oh yeah, and Sound & Color opened as the #1 selling album in the nation. Credit the Black Key's ascension for bolstering mainstream interest in Southern-tinged Roots Rock, but the Shakes are the real deal, a band with a specific-yet-eclectic sound, and a knack for crafting catchy grooves. Just one listen to slippery, funky lead single Don't Wanna Fight, and you'll be hooked for life, while the laid-back middle section of This Feeling and Guess Who wafts gracefully out of headphones and speakers, sliding around eardrums like a glove fits a hand. While the instruments and production on had are top-notch, there's little doubting how much lead singer Brittany Howard's voice means to the group, blues-ing away on Shoegaze, scraping the ceiling with her falsetto on Future People, and exploding like a volcano near the end of Miss You. Get used to Alabama Shakes; they're in this for the long haul.

        I wouldn't exactly call myself a Björk expert (notice I'm four months late on recommending this one... for shame), but I feel safe in saying that you've never heard the Icelandic troubadour quite like this before. While the art of Björk Guðmundsdóttir has been poignantly esoteric in the past, Vulnicura manages to keep the freak flag flying within one of the most immortal music traditions known to man: the break-up album. On her first record in four years, the singer/songwriter from Mars completely gives up on hiding the meaning of her lyrics, soaring through one plainly-worded ballad after another, the pain and heart-break of her recent split from multi-media artist/partner Matthew Barney felt in every syllable. While the solo work of producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak can feel a bit lacking, their beats are utterly perfect beneath Björk's singular croon, a string section goosing up the stakes and emotions of every waking moment. The 9-track offering bares only two songs that fall short of the 6-minute mark, the other 7 unfurling with the patience and build of a flower in bloom. As gorgeous as it is sorrowful, Vulnicura is one of 2015's very best.

The Waterfall---My Morning Jacket
        If you've loved My Morning Jacket like I've loved My Morning Jacket, my condolences on the last decade. Following the walloping one-two punch of 2003's It Still Moves and 2005's Z, the future seemed blindingly bright, and potentially sky-high. Then came Evil Urges and Circuital, a pair of LPs the doubled-down on the band's country western bend while largely sidelining the foundation-shaking power chords and wonky songwriting that powered their legendary Bonnaroo run. In other words, they veered dangerously close to becoming a Dad Rock band, and while many of those ideas and inclinations are still present on The Waterfall, the five-piece finally seems to be easing into this new phase in their career. The size and might of In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) and please-turn-that-up single Big Decisions harken back to the glory days, while Spring (Among the Living) and Compound Fracture employ unfamiliar instruments to show Jim James and company in an ever-so-slightly different light. Best of all, songs that might have turned into out-and-out cheese-fests on their last couple discs work like gangbusters here, opener Believe (Nobody Knows) embodying contentment in a far more believable way than Evil Urges' fan-service-y I'm Amazed, while Get the Point coaxes actual emotions where Librarian could only muster eye-rolls. I'm not here to tell you that My Morning Jacket will ever make it all the way back to their heyday, but they're finally back on the horse, and thank god for that.

Monday, May 25, 2015

HypeCast: Mad Max, Marvel, and the State of Modern Action Flicks

        Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the first-ever HypeCast, a new podcast wherein I chat with my friend Tyler Mitchell about all things movies. Today, we talk about Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the state of modern action movies in general. The discussion is complete with ramblings, assorted sounds from my living room, a random interruption in the middle, and a wholesale miss-use of the word vigilantly. Warning: naughty language is contained within, proceed at your own risk. Here we go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-18:18---Mad Max: Fury Road
18:19-28:11---Marvel Movies
28:11-38:20---Bad Recent Action Movies
38:21-45:15---Various thoughts/praise
45:16-58:38---Good Recent Action Movies
58:39-1:28:28---Complete ADD madness

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland (Release Date: 5-22-2015)

        The Mouse House is feeling pretty good about itself right now. Not that a corporation as massive as Disney (and ABC and ESPN by extension) is ever really too down on its luck, but their quest for global domination feels particularly pronounced this year. 2013's Frozen ranks sixth all-time in global grosses, Avengers: Age of Ultron passed the billion dollar mark within about five minutes of its release, and they've still got another Marvel flick (Ant-Man) and two Pixar outings (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur) on the way. Oh, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film that Brad Bird's Tomorrowland advertises for in both metaphorical and painfully literal ways. In fact, Tomorrowland never really stops advertising, from hover cars baring loud Dodge logos across their fronts, to desperately desired Coca-Colas. Perhaps these are redundant points to make about a movie named after a section of a theme park (another product the picture wants to sell you on), but Tomorrowland's desire to celebrate the works and ideologies of Disney is all-encompassing, feverishly preaching the the Tao of Mickey, wherein creativity and hope are valued above all else.

        This prevailing glass-half-full thinking is immediately posited by our protagonist, the bright-eyed and whip-smart Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). Wether she's battling against High School teachers who see nothing in our future but gloom-and-doom, or covertly sabotaging NASA's plans to tear down a local launch-pad, Newton's every move is motivated by a forward-thinking, rose-tinted paradigm. Her attitude catches the attention of both a mysterious little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), and a crotchety suburban hermit (George Clooney, mercifully not covered in 'hermit' make-up). Despite their differing world views, Athena and Gorgeous George agree that Casey just might have a big impact on our future, though the three will have to fight off violent robots, pessimism, and narrative non-sense on their epic journey to... Tomorrowland.

        Disney's latest marks writer/director Brad Bird's second foray into live-action filmmaking, following the massive critical and commercial success of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The promise of that movie was immense; Bird turned the Tom Cruise vehicle into real-life Looney Tunes, churning out one bonkers moment of spectacle after another in a way that hadn't been matched by another American movie until just last week. Tomorrowland can't quite make it up to those same dizzying heights, but the film's omnipresent handsomeness is impossible to ignore, cinematographer Claudio Miranda following the rule of thirds as if it were the Bible itself. One would be forgiven for wishing the movie shared Ghost Protocol's diligent attention to spacial reasoning, but there's enough razzle-dazzle shoved into each and every frame to nearly overwhelm the average eye-ball (the tracking shot that introduces us to the world of Tomorrowland nearly justifies the price of admission on its own).

        Robertson is good, Cassidy is better, and Clooney Clooneys... because, really, what else is a Clooney to do? The acting, while serviceable, isn't the draw here, and in a strange way, neither are the efforts of Bird, nor his enormous supporting cast of technicians. The fact that Tomorrowland should serve as a two-hour cornea massage was predictable and familiar; its urgently hopeful outlook is neither. Modern Hollywood is obsessed with portraying dreary projections of mankind's future, and film-goers have rewarded them every step of the way by forking out big bucks to see The Hunger Games movies, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, and any number of Day After Tomorrow-style depictions of mass-destruction. Tomorrowland argues against this type of thinking with its every move, from Scott Chambliss' glossy production design, to dialogue that could hardly be more on-the-nose if it tried ("It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up,” "We all find it easy to believe in a tragic future because it asks nothing of us").

        This temperament is undoubtably a byproduct of being conceived by the most dominant family entertainment factory on the planet, but it's also tremendously rare, and wholly against the grain of what's popular in movies today. The argument I'm making in favor of the movie is decidedly more theoretical than practical, but I'd imagine those who enjoy Tomorrowland will get more satisfaction out of what it represents than what it actually is. That's certainly where I land, and while Bird's film is far from perfect, its heart is always in the right place... except for when it's blatantly pimping Star Wars. Our blockbusters have fallen so far down the rabbit hole of negativity as to make Tomorrowland something of a revelation; here's to hoping more (and better) flicks follow its lead.

Grade: B

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (Release Date: 5-15-2015)

        Even in a world where sequels and reboots rule the multiplex, it's still somewhat baffling that was ever made. Arriving in theaters a solid three decades after the most recent installment in the franchise, FR appeals to our collective cultural nostalgia for a slew of pictures that mean absolutely nothing to the young movie-goers who power the box office, and was budgeted at a whopping 150 million smackers. The collective gross of the three previous films: 68.6 mil (yeah, I know, that's not adjusted to inflation... just work with me here). Suffice to say, director George Miller's scrappy Australian action trilogy was not the only reason this new edition saw the (green) light of day. First, there's hollywood's wholesale re-appropriation of B-movie aesthetic, taking a previously scoffed-at corner of the film world, and enabling the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (among many, many, many others) to apply both gloss and self-awareness to the blood-streaked pallet. Then there's the The Fast and the Furious franchise, whose perpetual revenue growth has taught tinsel-town one very important lesson: real cars and real stunt-work make for real fun. Given context, the bank-rolling higher-ups had ample reason to dust off this old property, and hope for Vin Diesel Unchained to torch the box office. Now that we've firmly established Fury Road's fiscal legitimacy, let's explore if this ever should have happened in the first place.

        Set an unknowable number of years after the events of the first three films, the newest Mad Max finds its titular hero (played here, for the first time, by Tom Hardy) in the most familiar of circumstances; alone, void of purpose, and desperately hungry for two-headed lizards. Perhaps a bit rusty from an unprecedented 30 years of paid leave, Max is captured by the War Boys, a collection of animalistic rough-riders led by their own personal demigod Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, veteran of the original Mad Max/famed ice cream enthusiast). Our protagonist becomes the slave of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a young religious lunatic hell-bent on accomplishing Joe's mission: capture and return both former trusted ally Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and the mysterious cargo she carries in her recently gone-rogue tanker truck. All other plot machinations can be heard in the roaring of engines, and the crunching of steel.

(*urg... please allow me a second to mount my High Horse... urg*)

       Ah, that's better. The 'action movie' is a broke entity of late, leaning too heavily on computer generated imagery, and mitigating the consequences of their omnipresent large-scale violence in the process. Fury Road lives to destroy this trend through pure force of will, following in the foot steps of the aforementioned Furious flicks in its stand against the over-use of artifice. The film makes frequent exceptions to its anti-CGI manifesto (including an awe-inspiring sand-storm sequence), but is ever-weary to balance them with the folding of real metal, and the burning of true gasoline. Say what you will about the legions of effects artists that power almost all of today's mega-hits; there's something inherently cinematic and satisfying about watching a real car turn from hamburger into hot dog right before your eyes. The sensation speaks for itself.

        As much as I'd love to give further tithings to the Church of Hardy, it's not my man Tom's efforts that make this movie so special. Nor is it Theron's, despite giving life to an emotive, combative, bad-ass heroine for the ages; the film belongs to writer/director George Miller, and the astounding work of his behind-the-camera talent. That's right, George Miller, the same guy who directed Babe: Pig in the City and the two-part computer-animated odyssey of singing, dancing penguins that was Happy Feet and its sequel. Just when the 70-year-old filmmaker seemed to be lost in an endlessly swirling whirlpool of sap, Fury Road rages to life, surely the most fast-paced, maniacally-imagined, and breathtakingly realized action blockbuster in quite some time. His boundless, sadistic whimsy fuels much of the proceedings in a quite overt manner, which is why I feel compelled to highlight the running mates that made his nightmare come true.

        Fury Road is a quintessential 'Must Be Seen On The Big Screen' experience, thanks in no small part to John Seale's sun-soaked cinematography, never less than beautifully brutal, or strikingly visceral. His camera captures the desolate, blisteringly-orange wasteland with the same aplomb as it does the grueling, hellish citadel over which Immortan Joe presides, brought to stomach-turning life by production designer Colin Gibson. As spectacular as the sets and costumes might be, the main appeal here is the action, pummeling eye-balls and forcing hands to grip armrests as Junkie XL's overpowering score rolls right over you with the merciless certitude of a cement roller. Every technician in sight is on their A-game, which is perhaps why it's editors Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel, acting as our tour guides through this endless ocean of awesome, whose contribution stands out the most. Their pace is relentless, sweeping you up in yet another jaw-dropping moment before you're even done processing the last, all without sacrificing cohesion on either a narrative or physical level. Shots rattle off in rapid-fire succession, most lasting a couple seconds or less, and yet Ballantine and Sixel make sure that you always know who is where, and what they're doing. In a summer season recently bombarded with the likes of Transformers and any number of Marvel flicks, Fury Road's innate sense of spacial reasoning is not only impressive, it's largely unparalleled. If their names aren't called on Oscar nomination morning, there's simply no justice left in this world.

        If you're wondering why my effusive praise for the new Mad Max has been largely focused on the technical side of things, it's because my affections are as well. Fury Road's story is both solid and streamlined, appealing to real emotions without caking on saccharine romances or convoluted plot twists, but those who view George Miller's latest as some sort of feminist statement simply saw this one through an entirely different set of eyes than my own. I suppose it's there if you squint, but you can keep your eyes wide open and not miss the fact that much of the supposed intellectual feminist push comes from fashion models dressed in flowing white robes. Not every film with strong female characters should be seen as harboring an agenda (though a few morons will undoubtably argue otherwise), and just because Fury Road fits in a few obvious digs at patriarchy and the resilience of females under duress doesn't mean it's boldly subverting Blockbuster expectations, nor force-feeding us a message for that matter. Each character's actions make sense in context, and while looking at this or any other form of pop art in the light of altering social consciousness, Fury Road doesn't need a million internet think-pieces to just be a kick-ass two hours at the flicks. The story arch, and the players within it, are at least serviceable, and often great, but it's Miller and that endless cavalcade of names you read during the credits that actually reach the sublime. Their immense collective talents work to create the purest form of what every flick is trying to conjure, yet so few actually reach: Movie Magic.

Grade: A

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Tallest Man on Earth: Dark Bird is Home and Surfer Blood: 1000 Palms (Release Dates: 5-12-2015)

        2010 was a ridiculously great year in music. Arcade Fire and Kanye were at their peaks, LCD Soundsystem was riding off into the sunset, and veterans like The National and Beach House bolstered their staying power ten-fold. It was also a tremendous 12-months for up-and-comers, including sun-soaked, indie-rocking Surfer Blood, and Dylan descendant Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man on Earth. Both Matsson and the Blood boys were in their early twenties at the time, and on Tuesday, each act releases a new album that marks a stylistic line in the sand. Avid fans of Astro Coast and The Wild Hunt need to adjust their expectations: 2010 was only an introduction, and 2015 marks a year of change.

        Upon its release, Astro Coast felt more than a little like Weezer's green album; an out-of-nowhere blast of sublime college rock, relying on catchy, economic songwriting just as much as power chord muscle. A rock solid 40-minutes that could be played from front to back without bumping into a single clunker, Surfer Blood's debut LP, much like that aforementioned Weezer effort, seemed to promise a long, bright future. They even followed it up with the excellent 4-song EP Tarot Classics back in October of 2011, marking the top of a wave that hasn't stopped crashing down since. Frontman John Paul Pitts was arrested in 2012 and charged with domestic battery, a blemish that was later expunged in the form of a plea and pass agreement. The incident likely lead many fans away from the band, as their follow-up LP, Pythons, commercially fell on its face. Finally, guitarist Thomas Fekete left the group earlier this year after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Sarcoma, which has subsequently spread to his lungs and spine. Suffice to say, next week's 1000 Palms is being released amidst a liiiiittle turmoil.

        While the struggles of Kristian Matsson aren't exactly on the level of the all-out Surfer Blood catastrophe, they inform nearly every passing moment of Dark Bird is Home. After touring heavily following the release of 2012's There's No Leaving Now, the strumming Swede returned home to his then girlfriend only to find their relationship irrevocably damaged, the two having grown apart during their extended separation. While the break-up theme isn't quite as pervasive or literal as it was on the most recent albums by Björk and Lykke Li, there's an unmissable sense of melancholy that hangs over nearly each passing track. Matsson practically whimpers his way through opener Fields of Our Home, voice cracking like a pubescent teen as he admits to "dreaming of a second run." This isn't the same guy who once howled a plea for you to, "not go the f***ing way." Dark Bird is the sound of Tallest Man accepting defeat, and wrapping his sound up in losses lovely dreariness.

        On the bright side, Matsson is getting that 'second run' in after all, even if it's not in the realm of romance. Gone is the just-a-dude-and-his-guitar simplicity of The Wild Hunt, replaced here by arrangements that are lush and full-bodied in a way that seemed altogether impossible as recently as five years ago. There were warning signs of course; the singer/songwriter followed Hunt with his Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird EP later that same year, a release that included his first foray into the world of electric guitars. There's No Leaving Now did it one better, amping up the multi-tracking, and filling out songs with guitar effects and instruments beyond your standard six-string. In hindsight, Leaving marks a distinct break in Matsson's career, the moment when he ceased his insistence on going it alone, and stripping everything down to its bare essentials. It just took Dark Bird's doubling-down for us to notice.

        In this sense, comparing Dark Bird to 1000 Days could not be more perfect, as each steps confidently forward in a previously foretold direction, clarifying their creators' prior releases in the process. When Pythons came out in the summer of 2012, it took a grand total of one listen to sink near the bottom of my personal rotation. Gone were the stadium-filling riffs of Astro Coast bangers like Swim and Fast Jabroni, replaced by sing-a-long ditties that treated the act of being cheesy as a virtue. The album was produced by industry mainstay Gil Norton, and while much of 1000 Days' pre-release chatter has centered around the band returning to the in-house production of their earlier work, their new album retains all of Pythons' lactose, and perhaps acquires even more. Surprisingly, that's a good thing.

        These guys aren't Weezer; they're The Smiths, and on 1000 Days, they wield their corniness in a way that would make Morrissey and the gang proud. Pitts' voice might not be on that level, but he makes up for it with a supernatural knack for melody, contentedly guiding us through Covered Wagons, while the unfussy vocal-line of Into Catacombs is branded on your brain upon first listen. Both so tacky, both so delicious, and neither even among the album's real stand-outs. I Can't Explain rides out of existence on the the biggest riff in 1000 Days' arsenal, while the locked-in groove of Point of No Return tickles eardrums without ever truly raising its voice. The Thomas Fekete diagnosis is made all the more tragic by this album's existence; Surfer Blood's latest emphasizes his slick, steady ax-work to terrific effect, his guitar fill propping Sabre-Tooth and Bone up all by itself, mutating opener Grand Inquisitor with the power of his playing. It's difficult to see the band maintaining this level of easy-going song craft without his seemingly intrinsic abilities, which makes the success of 1000 Palms all the more important and satisfying.

        While Surfer Blood managed to 'find themselves' on the brink of being altered forever more, The Tallest Man on Earth continues to experience growing pains on his way to Matsson's new incarnation. The troubadour put himself on the map with the simplicity of his craft, pairing intricate yet indelible acoustic guitar mastery with non-traditional vocals that bled with passion and urgency. Dark Bird treats most of that as though it was an accident, piling variance and gloss onto a sound that, to my mind, required neither. Matsson's vocals have been pointedly sanded-down, perhaps to skirt those unskirtable Dylan comparisons, and while deemphasizing his nasal-y croon might be for the best in the long run, it saps his voice of its signature passion almost whole-sale. Meanwhile, the emphasis on elaborate instrumentation serves to diminish the singular strength of Matsson's guitar. His fretboard efforts are a complete after-thought on Slow Dance and Seventeen, and album highlights Timothy and Little Nowhere Towns can hardly find room for Tallest Man's most trusted ally. Given the production and talent on hand, Dark Bird was never going to be a pure failure, but one does get the impression that Matsson is getting away from his strengths, rather than playing into them.

        Leaving Now marked a turning point, but it still made room for sumptuous DIY winners like Leading Me Now and Criminals. Tallest Man shelves that approach completely this time around, and even when he appears on his lonesome, as he does on Singers and Fields of Our Home, his plucking proves gentle and steady where previous efforts were zippy and specific. It seems only fair to judge Dark Bird is Home by the standards of any other album (it's undoubtably above-average), but as a long-time fan, this new direction is quickly getting away from what made Matsson's music such a treasure in the first place. Surfer Blood is now equally unrecognizable, but I mind half as much, which speaks to the thoroughness with which 1000 Palms sticks its landing. Closer NW Passage alludes to this sense of contentment, a breezy guitar riff and Pitts' chilled-out vocal delivery patiently ushering us away, sun beaming on our backs. This is the sound of a band locating its comfort zone, and even if that's soon set to change due to Fekete's diagnosis, the good vibes of 1000 Palms will live on.

Dark Bird is Home Grade: B
1000 Palms Grade: B+

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Release Date: 5-1-2015)

        For all the speculation and secrecy surrounding each new Marvel flick prior to release, these films are spoiler proof. Centered around a macho-man with insecurity issues, each joint introduces a new glowing rock that must subsequently be retrieved. The baddies give chase, witty banter is exchanged, and a forced reference to another Marvel property excites the fan boys. Finally, something threatens to either emerge or fall from the sky, requiring our hero(s) to save the day, no matter the property damage. The structure of their plotting is almost as predictable as their utter box office domination: films geeks often refer to May as the start of the summer movie season, but perhaps we should just rename that 4 month period after the comic book studio itself. Since Iron Man exploded onto the scene almost exactly 7 years ago, Marvel has managed to kick off the sunny set all but twice, and has produced the highest grossing summer entry for 3 straight years now, with Ultron almost certainly extending the streak. These things are critic-proof, fatigue-proof, and failure-proof on just about every imaginable level. If you were chomping at the bit to see the new one, you probably already have, and if you don't have the taste for cape-wearing and city-leveling, you've probably already decided to pass. There's an ever-dwindling middle-ground between those two polarities; if you happen fit into that mysterious group, this review is for you.        

        Although these team-up movies are meant to receive their backstory from each character’s most recent individual installment, Ultron mostly plays like a strict sequel to The Avengers, opening with Earth’s Mightiest Heros battling together as if New York happened just yesterday. The wise-cracks are flying, the resentments have been tempered, the teamwork is inspired, and yet, despite all their joint success, the group is set to disband. The action has always taken an emotional toll on Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been has been in the ass-kicking business for far too long, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was basically freelancing in the first place. Dissolving the gang would seem to put the whole world at risk, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a plan; create artificial intelligence by using the alien technology located inside the spear Loki wielded through-out the first film. The billionaire’s hubris is proven foolhardy when his creation, dubbed Ultron, comes to life with the voice of James Spader, and the mustache-twirling deviousness of a Bond villain. Avengers... ASSEMBLE!!!

        The secret to the success of the original Avengers flick was in its plot: it didn’t have one. Sure, there were aspiring world conquerers and a slew of aliens that needed besting, but for the most part, the 2012 smash spent its time palling around with the troops. It told funny jokes, established their relationships, and made time for hero-on-hero battles that resembled an 8-year-old playing with action figures after school. Though the spirit of that film exists here as well, the agenda is much more bloated; many of the periphery players from other Marvel franchises appear in brief roles, while Ultron even makes time to introduce Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and The Vision (Paul Bettany). It's Spider-Man 3-level overload, but credit writer/director Joss Whedon for never dropping any of the many balls he's juggling. It feels like a stretch to say the auteur completely sticks the landing, but considering how many different character arches and plot points are scattered across the film's 141 minute runtime, Ultron is remarkably consistent in the fields of comprehension and engagement.

        It's nice to see the studio push forward into more complicated, knotty storytelling, but just as their steady strengths are on display here, so are their stayed weaknesses. Disney has already announced the conglomerate's next 11 projects (dating to mid 2019), and detailed casting news that all but assures none of our favorite world savers will be meeting their demise anytime soon. Even on screen, the danger seems mild at best; the hoards of robo-clones Ultron creates through undisclosed means function in almost the same quantity-over-quality fashion as The Avengers' Chitauri, and are perhaps even easier to cut in half. No one's saying it's not fun to kick it with Captain America and the Hulk for a few hours, but a real adversary would take these movies to a different place entirely. When Jeff-Bridges-dressed-up-as-an-iron-clad-Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man is one of your company's most memorable troublemakers, you've got a problem. Ultron's fun, and Spader is obviously having a blast in the sound booth, but he never feels truly threatening, and his inverted altruism and game-changing intelligence feel half-baked at best. The action set pieces can also prove frustrating, creating a cacophony with their rapid cuts, and complete and utter abandonment of spacial reasoning. Whatever you do, don't attempt to grasp where one Avenger is in relation to the next during the climactic battle; you'll give yourself a migraine. 

      But none of what I'm saying really matters, does it? This thing is more powerful than you or me, and as a few melees set in less fortunate parts of the world might be boldly suggesting, its global domination is thorough to the point of being tyrannical and wanton. You probably know 20 people who've already forked out their $12 as if it was a communion offering, and even if their hunger for the product is insatiable, it's clear that thirst doesn't always extend to the creative team. If The Avengers was all about how fun it is to wield superpowers, then Ultron argues that it's an out-and-out bummer, and one would be forgiven for speculating that certain folks both in front of and behind the camera might be buying into the movie's thesis. There will be more Marvel movies of course, some inspired, some phoned-in, some creative, and some hamstrung by studio demands. They will make better pictures than Ultron, and they will also make worse: at the end of the day, this one's just kind of keeping the seat warm.

Grade: B-